March 2, 2022

Remembering “The Lives of Others” — “It’s for Us”

By Stuart Mitchner

Through the closed door I can hear the muffled urgency of voices coming from the TV in the next room, where my wife is watching coverage of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I’m reminded of “The Hearth,” a poem by C.K. Williams (1936-2015) that I first read two weeks before the invasion of Iraq and a year before I got to know the poet, whose grandparents came to America from Lvov (Lviv) and Kiev (Kyiv), both now major cities in Ukraine.

Contrary to the domestic tranquility usually associated with “hearth and home,” the fire Williams pokes at is “recalcitrant” and he’s “alone after the news on a bitter evening in the country,” troubled by thoughts of war and the “more than fear” he feels for his children and grandchildren. The fire “barely keeps the room warm,” and at the end, when he writes, “I stoke it again and crouch closer,” you’re in the chilly room with him, holding your hands toward the hearth.

“Dreaming About It”

As I imagine the impact Putin’s invasion would have on a poet with Ukrainian roots, I recall the extraordinary German film, The Lives of Others, a painfully resonant title now that the lives of Ukrainians have been uprooted and plunged into chaos.

Fifteen years ago this week my wife and I were at a packed Garden Theatre watching Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Academy Award-winning picture, which is haunted and illuminated by Ulrich Mühe’s portrayal of a captain in the Stasi, the East German secret police. 

We saw the film again last week on Amazon Prime Video after watching Mühe in Michael Haneke‘s 1996 adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s The Castle. It didn‘t take long before we realized that the man bringing K. to life was the same actor whose impact on the audience at the Garden was such that when The Lives of Others ended, the full-house audience gave it a prolonged ovation. Having noticed that Williams was in the theater that evening, I emailed him, assuming he’d been as moved by the film as I was. He said, “I was up all night dreaming about it.”

Such are the dimensions of the film’s appeal that Williams’s political polar opposite, William F. Buckley, celebrated it in his column: “I think that this is the best movie I ever saw. The tension mounts to heart-stopping pitch and I felt the impulse to rush out into the street and drag passersby in to watch the story unfold.”

Being With People

Given this curious range of responses — a liberal poet dreaming through the night and a conservative commentator dragging people off the street — I decided to sort things out by consulting the author of The Metamorphosis. In his diary a hundred years ago, February 2, 1922, after suggesting that “a decision between insanity and security is imminent,” Kafka ends the entry with this dangling thought: “The happiness of being with people.”

In The Lives of Others, Mühe’s Stasi Hauptman Gerd Wiesler, code-named HGW XX7, finds something more precious than happiness while clandestinely surveying and “being with” playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), whose apartment has been thoroughly bugged. Although Dreyman had managed to remain “clean” while achieving success, that alone makes him a prime candidate for surveillance.

The Power of Art

Mühe apparently kept faith with secrecy even as he was dying. According to the New York Times obituary, he didn’t reveal that he had terminal cancer until the month of his death at 54, on July 25, 2007, six months after The Lives of Others won the Best Foreign Film Oscar and five months after it played in Princeton. The obit quotes him telling an interviewer, “Art can change your life. It holds a power so strong that it can melt even a dreaded Stasi officer.”

What makes Mühe’s performance as the lonely, deceptively cold Stasi spy so stirring, however, is not so much that he “melts” but manages to gradually, subtly suggest hidden depths of feeling for the playwright and especially the actress, whose talent and beauty he admired in a performance of Dreyman’s play. Earlier in the film, Wiesler himself is seen as if onstage before an audience of Stasi recruits, screening a sequence showing him reducing a suspected dissident to tears without physically abusing him, the lesson being, he says, that the most effective way of breaking a suspect is “non-stop interrogation.” For Mühe’s secret sharer, non-stop surveillance proves to be the most effective way to save his soul.

Inner Eloquence

In an Entertainment Weekly interview shortly after the actor’s death, von Donnersmarck recalls an exchange wherein Mühe wonders why the screenplay gives him so little to say and the director tells him not to worry about it because his “eloquence is so interior.” It’s one thing to speak of inner eloquence, but how does an actor, whether he’s playing Kafka’s K. or the film’s HGW XX7, express it? If Mühe succeeds in portraying someone with a complex, tormented inner life, we know now that the pain was real. Asked to comment on Mühe’s silence about the cancer, von Donnersmarck said, “It was crazy, I had known for a long time that he was very sick, but he kept this completely secret from everyone, because he said that he did not want to be spared out of pity. He just wanted the undiluted truth — when people showed him love for it to be real love, and not something out of pity.”

“Sonata for a Good Man”

In von Donnersmarck’s screenplay (Pushkin Press 2014), one of the film’s defining moments is signified by a camera movement. Wiesler is in the surveillance center, headphones on, listening (as in the book’s cover image shown here) when the playwright learns of the suicide of his good friend, blacklisted theatrical director Albert Jerska, whose career was ruined when his views were discovered by the Stasi. Wiesler leans close, listening intently as Dreyman, still stunned by the news, goes to the piano to play “Sonata for a Good Man,” a piece Jerska composed and gave him for his birthday; in the words of the screenplay: “He starts playing it, in all its beauty and melancholy. His lover Christa comes out of the bedroom. She sees how shaken he is, stands next to him without asking any questions and listens to him playing.” At that moment, the camera cuts to the surveillance center and “moves in a semicircle around Wiesler …. His face can’t be seen, only his back and the back of his head with the headphones through which the music is playing.” The camera movement continues “around Dreyman and Christa,” in effect bringing Wiesler into their emotional space.

As he finishes the piece, Dreyman “lets the last note echo for a long time” before quoting what Lenin said about Beethoven’s Appassionata: “If I keep listening to it, I won’t finish the revolution.” The next shot shows Wiesler listening; although he appears impassive, a tear can be seen shining on his cheek.

“It’s for Me”

The closing scene of The Lives of Others is so perfectly tuned to the emotional music of the film that I’d resort to a spoiler alert, except that what happens can’t be spoiled. Some years after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989, the playwright learns that his survival
depended on the courageous collaboration of a Stasi officer identified only as HGW XX7. Dreyman writes a novel he calls Sonata for a Good Man and dedicates it to HGW XX7 “in gratitude.” Long ago demoted to a mail sorter, Wiesler sees the novel in a bookstore display window, goes inside, notices the dedication, and brings the book to the sales counter. When the salesman asks if he would like the book gift wrapped, Wiesler says, “No, it’s for me.”

One good ending leads to another, as Anthony Lane closes his appreciation in the February 12, 2007 New Yorker, describing “an ending of overwhelming simplicity and force, in which the hopes of the film … come gently to rest. What happens is that a character says, ‘Es ist für mich’ — ‘It’s for me.’ When you see the film, as you must, you will understand why the phrase is like a blessing. To have something bestowed on ‘me’ — not on a tool of the state, not on a scapegoat or a sneak, but on me — is a sign that individual liberties have risen from the dead. You might think that The Lives of Others is aimed solely at modern Germans — at all the Wieslers, the Dreymans, and the weeping Christa-Marias. A movie this strong, however, is never parochial, nor is it period drama. Es ist für uns. It’s for us.”

Edmund Keeley

I wish I could have talked with Edmund Keeley about The Lives of Others. Mike has been in my thoughts ever since I began this piece, after hearing of his death a week ago. (“Everybody calls me Mike since for some reason that is what my parents called me from the day I was born.”)  The finest, truest qualities of the film remind me of Mike, of his thoughtful company, his kindness, his willingness to talk about his long career at Princeton, from student to professor emeritus, and about the poets and writers he knew, among them John Berryman and W.S. Merwin, and more recently C.K. Williams, whose memorial service in Philadelphia we attended together six years ago this April. Mike’s last three poems, which he intended as a trilogy, can be found in the memorial notice on The last one, “The Day Comes,” dated Winter 2022, ends, “so surely there’s no / Consolation when the day finally comes, / Just the pain and gratitude.”


Note: A future column will focus on Keeley’s poetry, translations, fiction, and travel writings, among them his Albanian Journal, which is where he explains why he is called Mike. From then on, his Albanian host calls him Mr. Mike.  A DVD of The Lives of Others is available at the Princeton Public Library.