TW: brief mention of suicide
“Writers are the engineers of the soul”
Politically cynical Paul Hauser reminds the East German Minister for Culture, Bruno Hempf, that these words, uttered by him moments earlier, were in fact said by Stalin, setting the scene for a politically tense critique of cultural repression in East Germany in the 1980s. Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 Oscar winning film was the first in a string of films tackling the German Democratic Republic which didn’t pursue a comedic plot line. Instead, the sentiment of these words echo the wider importance attached to art and humanity in this poignant take on the lives of those to the East of the Berlin Wall.
At the beginning of the film, Hempf confidently states that “People don’t change”, an ironic statement that Donnersmarck sets out to shatter in the course of the film, as we witness Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler dramatically change from a cold-blooded and loyal party-servant to a man willing to risk his career to save others. But, crucially, what prompts this ‘change of heart’ in Wiesler is not simply some deeper moral realisation, but exposure to art. So while the film successfully depicts the destructive impact of the German Democratic Republic on the lives and relationships of its citizens, the way Donnersmarck portrays art as vitally important for cultivating human emotions, is a powerful and ever-relevant message. Indeed the film’s portrayal of the importance of artists and art was even more powerful with Rishi Sunak’s ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’ adverts looming over me as I re-watched.
The film opens and closes with a performance of the same play, a cyclical reinforcement of the continuous impact of theatre and the arts on our lives. The sweeping camera surveys of the audience in their seats and the rapturous applause, complete with a cast after-party, are all images which serve to remind us of the importance not just of the theatre as a workplace for many but as a place of creativity, pleasure and joy. On the extreme contrary, the suicide of blacklisted writer Albert Jerska, due to his inability to write, shows us how important creativity is to the creator. He perfectly sums this up before his death, asking: “What is a director if he can’t direct? He’s a projectionist without a film, a miller without corn. He is nothing. Nothing at all.” The culturally repressive Democratic Republic provides a context in which to show how deeply integral art is both to the consumer and the producer and how without it, both are at a loss.
As requested by corrupt womaniser Bruno Hempf, Wiesler becomes a permanent eavesdropper into the private lives of the play’s writer, Georg Dreyman, and the lead actress, Christa Maria-Sieland, thanks to the routine practice of apartment bugging in East Germany. Inevitably the stark contrast between the lonely unattached life of Wiesler and the continuous vicarious experience of the newly blooming relationship between Christa and Dreyman,, opens Wiesler’s eyes to a wealth of feeling he is missing out on. His yearning for their intimacy leads him to steal and read one of Dreyman’s Brecht collections. Henceforth a huge change can be noticed in Wiesler’s character, as he becomes less loyal to a party and career he once gave everything for, revealing once more the impact of art on the individual.
A wide angle shot pans over Wiesler’s tear filled eyes when Dreyman plays the ‘Sonate vom Guten Menschen’ at the news of Jerska’s death, affirming the change in Wiesler and the emotional impact music can have. Shortly after this experience, Wiesler makes the active choice not to seek out a neighbour who, as he discovers from their child in an elevator, believes the Stasi are evil people. He then starts to lie about the true nature of Dreyman’s activities, marking the beginning of a process in which Wiesler tries to actively prevent Dreyman from being caught and imprisoned. His final act in this character change is to actively go against the party, by disposing of evidence vital to the investigation into Dreyman’s possible disployal activities, something he does in the knowledge that his career is on the line. As a result, Wiesler loses everything, but Dreyman is saved.
The film ends with Dreyman acknowledging Wiesler’s efforts to save him by dedicating his new book to him after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wiesler perhaps gets closest to the personal intimacy he had been craving through this dedication, which we can sense as the film ends with him buying the book with a warm smile on his face, as if in acknowledgement that losing his career had been worth it after all. As the end credits roll, perhaps what stays with us just as much as the sheer repressive brutality of the East German regime is the effect literature and art has on our humanity and personal relationships. Such a lesson should not be forgotten as we slide into another lockdown for, as this film shows, art and freedom of expression are so important for connecting humanity together in times of trial and hardship.