In a key scene from the 2006 German movie The Lives of Others, the playwright Georg Dreymann plays a piece of music called Sonata for a Good Man to his girlfriend Crista-Maria Sieland, and comments, "how can anyone listen to music like this and be a bad man?" It's a lot of weight to hang on music (admittedly haunting and effective music) composed specifically for the film by Gabriel Yare. (The original story that the film-maker, Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, took as his inspiration for this scene referred to Beethoven's Sonata Appassionata.) That audacity is typical of the film, which tells the story of the conversion of an agent of the East German secret police (the Stasi), Gerd Wiesler, through the power of art and empathy.
Wiesler, splendidly acted by Ulrich Muhe (who in real life had himself been the victim of surveillance by the Stasi and claimed that his own wife had been one of the informants), is a buttoned-down, quietly intense officer whom we first see interrogating a prisoner and then using recording of the interrogation to instruct students. When a student protests that the sleep deprivation method Wiesler uses is "inhumane," Wiesler responds by proving that, in fact, the prisoner was lying and arguing that only such extreme methods can break down the arrogance of the "enemies of the state." The picture is clear: this is a person capable of recognizing the moral problems with what he is doing ,but convinced that the ends justify the means--a true believer whose sensitivity and intelligence make him all the more chilling. When he first sees Dreymann, he immediately comments that Dreymann displays the arrogance typical of "enemies of the State" and ought to be put under surveillance, even though he appears to be a model Communist whose poetic dramas glorify East Germany as "the best country in the world." Wiesler's concerns find a receptive ear with the loathsome government official Bruno Hempf, who desires Dreymann's girlfriend and wants to get Dreymann out of the way. And so the main action of the film begins, as Wiesler bugs Dreymann's apartment and sits day after day with earphones on his head, monitoring what goes on inside.
In the course of the film, Dreymann does become the dissident Wiesler suspects him to be. But in the process, Wiesler comes to have empathy for his victim, so that when the time comes to tighten the noose, he can't bring himself to do it. In the process, like Dreymann and Hempf in their own very different ways, Wiesler falls in love with the fragile, troubled Sieland, or at least comes to have deep compassion and admiration for her. (Sieland is somewhat of a sexist stereotype, though a fascinating and well-acted one--the doomed, flawed woman who functions both as guardian angel and Achilles' heel to the man she loves. The way in which all the men in the story are defined by their reactions to her is rather reminiscent of Hugo's Esmeralda.) After initially manipulating Dreymann into discovering Sieland's affair with Hempf (though given the level of coercion involved, it might better be called rape), Wiesler later approaches Sieland to assure her (as an anonymous fan) of his respect for her art and of her worthiness as a human being. Later, when called on to interrogate her, he will deliberately use some of the same language he had employed in that earlier conversation in an apparent attempt to reassure her covertly that he is on her side and she need not despair. Tragically, she fails to recognize him.
I will respect our culture's silly superstition about "spoilers" enough to avoid giving away any more details of the plot. It is a highly melodramatic (though well-constructed) one, but the most unrealistic and often criticized element is the key point on which the whole story turns--the possibility of a Stasi agent softening toward his victims and becoming an agent of hope and compassion. The director of the museum now housed in the former Stasi headquarters refused to allow the movie to be filmed there because he believed that it whitewashed the subject, pointing out that there is no record (among all the meticulous records they kept) of any Stasi agent softening toward his victims, and that even if one had he would have been instantly caught because of the many levels of double-checking in place.
The Lives of Others, for all its careful, rich detail about life in Communist Germany, is fundamentally a fantasy, more like Lord of the Rings than the grim realistic drama I rather expected it to be. It turns on what Chesterton rightly pointed out long ago was perhaps the most fantastic of Christianity's supernatural claims: that human beings have free will.
The best response to the critics, perhaps, is the story of a 29-year-old captain in the Israeli intelligence service "Unit 8200" who, in 2014, joined 42 of her colleagues in refusing to participate further in the surveillance of Palestinians. She cited The Lives of Others as the trigger that finally convinced her that her job was immoral:
“I felt a lot of sympathy for the victims in the film of the intelligence,” the captain said. “But I did feel a weird, confusing sense of similarity, I identified myself with the intelligence workers. That we were similar to the kind of oppressive intelligence in oppressive regimes really was a deep realization that makes us all feel that we have to take responsibility.”The film has frequently been cited in other contexts relating to intrusive surveillance efforts by governments, including the NSA program that prompted Edward Snowden's massive leaks. It may well be unrealistic to imagine that a Stasi agent could have acted as Wiesler does in the film. But as the Israeli intelligence officer's story demonstrates, the power of the film to create empathy both with Wiesler and his victims can be transformative in the real world. The film may not describe the behavior of Stasi agents, but it may play some role in preventing others from turning into Stasi agents. It witnesses to the hope that, in Tolkien's words, "in the armour of fate there is ever a rift, and in the walls of doom a breach"--that the poets and the lovers have the last word after all, and that music has the power to create the goodness of which it sings. When men like Minister Hempf once again hold positions of power, we need stories like that. We always need stories like that.