How LIVES of OTHERS is Breaking the Fourth Wall; and the Dilemma Between Duty and Being a Good Man

Lives of Others – Das Leben Der Anderen (2006) is based on one of the fundamental tricks of storytelling in dramatic structure: dramatic irony. Dramatic irony means that the audience knows something the characters don’t know; in this film the audience knows that the characters are under surveillance. There is a very sweet Brechtian element added to this dramatic irony: the main character is also an audience. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), also known as Haupfman is an audience of the lives of Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). It is his duty to monitor their lives as part of his job in the Stasi.

Throughout the film Wiesler monitors the lives of others and this puts Wiesler closer to the film’s audience than the other characters in the film. We, as the audience, identify with him not just because we watch more of him, but because he is in a very similar position to us: he watches those who don’t know they are being watched. He is the secret eye, watching Georg and Christa-Maria’s lives; he is their audience. Yet he is, one might say, a Brechtian audience; he not only watches their lives but is also affected by what he sees. Moreover, he has the power to affect the story through his actions.

What does it mean to watch a film? As a film audience we watch characters without them being aware of it; the camera is like a secret eye that reveals the lives of the characters. We believe the lives of the characters exist separately from our own, in a different reality. Since we have no power to affect that reality, we have no responsibility over what we see. Brecht calls this distance between the audience and the actors the fourth wall. In classic storytelling the audience trusts the fourth wall. It is a wall that keeps us safe, a wall that protects us from the circumstances and misfortunes of the story. Brecht revolutionized the theater scene by breaking the fourth wall. Whereas the audience was untouchable in classical theater, in Brechtian theatre the audience was alienated. The story and the characters would have absurdities in ways that neither fits the reality of the audience nor the reality of a classical fictional work. This absurdity was carefully placed in Brecht’s plays to disturb the audience, to make the audience feel that they are not untouchable, they are not free of the reality they are watching. This is called alienation.

Brecht’s alienation is not the same alienation as used in social theory. Karl Marx defined alienation as the workers’ alienation from their own labor. The workers in mass capitalist production chain work in the production of only one small part of the final product. Therefore, they won’t recognize their labor in the final product. In fact, they have to pay more money to buy the final product than the money they were paid for their labor in the production; and many times they can’t afford to buy the final product at all. This is alienation in the Marxist sense. Brecht used the term alienation differently.

In Brechtian theater, disturbing the audience serves alienation. The audience shouldn’t be emotionally involved in the play, the audience should constantly question what is shown in the play. This constant questioning helps give the audience the message that the play is not free from the audience’s reality; therefore, the audience is responsible for understanding what problems the play reveals to them. Identifying with Wiesler causes us to be alienated from Georg and Christa-Maria’s story. We are more emotionally involved with Gerd Wiesler than we are with Georg and Christa-Maria, and we are always on edge to see what Wiesler will do next.

Gerd Wiesler slowly realizes that he is responsible for the lives he is spying on. He has power to change those lives, and he has to take the necessary actions to make that change. We see how power can corrupt people and how people can corrupt power; and in our reality we witness good men facing challenges in making the right decision. Thus, we wonder whether Wiesler’s power will corrupt him as well. When at the end of the movie Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) asks Wiesler ‘Are you still on the right side?’, Wiesler is honest with his answers ‘yes’. He is doing the right thing by not obeying orders. Sometimes the ‘right’ that is dictated by the powerful people is wrong and it is right to do the ‘wrong’ thing.

We watch as witnessing Georg and Christa-Maria’s life causes Wiesler to change. Ulrich Mühe fits this role perfectly both with his acting and his childishly naïve facial features. He has big eyes sparkling with curiosity and a very clean-cut appearance, his actions are disciplined and restrained. His expressions are very interesting to watch as he reacts to the events of Georg and Christa-Maria’s life. He is their audience; we are the film’s audience. As we watch Wiesler we feel like we are watching a reflection of our own; and thus we relate to him. In contrast with Wiesler’s loneliness, Georg Dreyman is a friendly and easy going fellow who can converse with the intellectual elites as well as play football with little kids on the street. Wiesler’s strangeness does not come from only the absurdity in monitoring Dreyman’s life but also from his character’s distance from Georg’s character. He watches him with curiosity.

The theme of surveillance is one that is commonly used in film, called voyeurism. We see it in other films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up (1966), and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).Voyeurism is a theme that touches the audience by implying the elimination of the fourth wall. Those films tell the audience ‘we know you’re watching, and we are watching back’. In Lives of Others it is Wiesler’s duty to be the voyeur.

Wiesler is a firm and lonely middle-aged man who is ordered to monitor the intimate lives of two successful artists. The stark contrast between Wiesler and the couple is impossible to miss. Wiesler’s simple and characterless apartment reveals that his own personal life isn’t too interesting. He is almost like a machine programmed for going about his daily actions and fulfilling his duty for the Stasi. He is shown to us like a man who has no life of his own and is obliged to watch the lives of others from outside. He is bound to be an outsider. Regardless, he feels more and more involved with Georg and Christa-Maria as he listens to their lives. In Georg’s party Jerska brings Georg a book by Brecht. Wiesler records the events of the evening with a typewriter, as if he is a screenwriter; a writer like Georg.  Later in the film Wiesler steals the book from Georg’s study room and reads it, looking touched. Georg’s personality changes Wiesler slowly. The references to Brecht in the film pay tribute to Brecht and all his ideas that are still alive.

Wiesler is an idealist. The contrast between his colleague Udo (Charly Hübner) and him, shows this clearly. Udo is delighted when he puts on the earphones and hears that Dreyman and his girlfriend are having sex. He’s in stark contrast to Wiesler who seems disturbed to witness such a private affair. This shows us that Wiesler isn’t doing his work so much for pleasure as for his sense of responsibility. His further actions prove that. He refuses to sit ‘where the bosses sit’ at lunch, telling Grubitz ‘socialism must start somewhere’. He believes in socialism but soon enough he realizes GDR’s government doesn’t act idealistically, they act according to the ruling class’s interests just like any other Western government. The operation ‘Lazlo’ itself was initiated because the minister desires to be with Christa-Maria and hopes to get Georg Dreyman out of the picture. Grubitz is eager to help minister Hempf, but Wiesler answers him that this wasn’t the reason why they joined the party. “What is the party, if not its leaders?” Grubitz asks Wiesler. This question reoccurs when Georg asks Christa-Maria to stop seeing the minister and she asks him doesn’t she need the system and isn’t he the system?

Wiesler is a good man. We watch him make increasingly well-intentioned decisions and take responsibility for his decisions day by day. Being able to watch his inner conflict, to watch his need to do the right thing collide with his ideologies, is what makes this film so effective. The character Wiesler ‘Haupfmann’ symbolizes all the good man of duty who had to face a dilemma under bad governments. After Georg learns Jerska committed suicide, he plays the piano piece Jerska has given him the sheet music for: Sonata vom Guten Menschen (Sonata for a Good Man). Wiesler cries silently as he listens. He really hears the music, and he feels Georg’s pain.

It is one of the turning points when Georg asks Christa-Maria not to go to the minister. Georg tells her that she doesn’t need the minister. She answers, doesn’t she need the system and isn’t he the system? And doesn’t Georg need the system too? She tells him, ‘You get in bed with them too, why do you do it? Because they can destroy you too, despite your talent and your faith. Because they decide what we play, who is to act, and who can direct.’ The shot cuts to Weisler as he listens to this, eyes wide open. He is able to question the system in such open words for the first time. Thus, when Udo shows up to carry on with the monitoring, Wiesler is unwilling to go. He lies to Udo, saying that Georg and Christa-Maria are arguing about whether she should go to meet with her friend. This is the first lie Wiesler tells for the couple.

Then he goes to a bar close to the couple’s house, and there he comes across Christa-Maria. The physical distance between him and Christa Maria is broken right there. When Wiesler decides to talk to her, he takes the action that breaks the fourth wall. He walks towards her and talks to her, convincing her that she doesn’t need the minister. From then on Wiesler is no longer the distant and irresponsible audience but he is becoming a visible actor in the story, whose actions change the fate of the other characters.

The midpoint is when Wiesler goes to Grubitz to denunciate Dreyman. Before he says anything, Grubitz starts talking about how Dreyman would be punished when arrested. Wiesler folds the report in his hand, he is completely emotionally involved with the lives of others. Wiesler becomes Georg’s partner in crime without him even knowing it. He listens to Georg’s piece on suicides and writes lies in his report without even hesitating this time. A peaceful country music accompanies this new state of mind.  

Grubitz asks Christa-Maria in her interrogation: “what do actors do when they can’t act anymore?’ In an earlier discussion, Christa-Maria tells Georg that the party members ‘decide what we play, who is to act, and who can direct.’ And right there Grubitz tells her she is no longer allowed to act. So, what do actors do when they can’t act anymore? They stop acting. Christa-Maria does the opposite. She keeps acting even after her death, without even noticing it.

Grubitz thinks she hid the typewriter and he exclaims: ‘the actress!’. Christa-Maria had told Georg: ‘You don’t want to end up like Jerska, and neither do I. That’s why I’m going.’. Yet, she ended up exactly like Jerska. Still the show goes on. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of GDR the show goes on. This time another actress plays Marta which Christa-Maria used to play. 

We keep watching, and we keep acting. The scenes change, the actors change, even the play can sometimes change. Yet there are always writers and actors, bad people and good people, and people who can’t decide what is good and what is bad. Then there are the people who are obliged to watch. “Why am I not spared these visions?” asks Marta in the play Georg has written. The question is asked both in the beginning and in the end. Wiesler might ask himself the same question. When he receives the Sonata for a Good Man, his question is answered. The book is written by Georg and dedicated to him. He was not spared these visions, because the world needs good men.


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