On von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others

Michael Wood in the LRB:

When I left the cinema I had a title of Flannery O’Connor’s running in my head: A Good Man Is Hard to Find. But there is another title that provides a much better clue to the moral preoccupations of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first full-length film, The Lives of Others: Brecht’s Good Person of Szechuan. It was Brecht, too, who in response to the distribution of a leaflet announcing (in 1953) that the people of the DDR had ‘forfeited the confidence of the government’ wondered with mock innocence:

Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?

‘You are a good person,’ an actress says to a Stasi captain in the film: ‘Sie sind ein guter Mensch.’ She doesn’t at this moment know he is the melancholy master of surveillance who is tracking every detail of her and her partner’s life. Is he a good person? Why is he spying on them? Have they done something to arouse the suspicion of the authorities? No, but they will. They do, or one of them does. Did we imagine the secret police of the DDR pursued people for nothing?

The Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler, wonderfully played by Ulrich Mühe, who looks like a depressed and introverted Michel Piccoli, asks this last question near the beginning of the movie. It is in turn one of the standard, sardonic lines of Hitler’s SS, and has what is no doubt its secret sharer in the opening of Kafka’s The Trial. But Wiesler is not being sardonic, he is being sadly sincere. He knows the guilty often look innocent, but he’s not fooled. He knows that guilty people repeat their stories of innocence verbatim, and that innocent people get angry at their interrogation, while guilty people go quiet. We see him grilling a suspect on the basis of these principles, and we see him teaching his expertise at the Stasi college. The students are disturbed, but impressed. The time is 1985.