The Lives of Others [2006]

I have fairly persistently described the Spy Genre as an omnibus genre that drags in elements from a number of other genres, and I’ve been pointing at the Detective Genre quite frequently. Like any specialist, I guess, when I encounter a new kind of problem the easiest thing is to pretend it’s just like some other problem you’ve already got experience with. Following Grella, Cawelti & Knight, I have been discussing a lot of Golden Age fiction in terms of a purgation of evil from society, which Auden describes as a return to Eden. The collective wisdom is that Golden Age fiction re-asserts conservative values by expelling those who don’t conform to those values. The victim is generally an obstacle in a “good” marriage, while the killer is usually someone operating outside of society. These scholars see the medium of the detective story as conveying its true conservative agenda. The details of who, how, why etc obscure this core message, distracting us from the wood with some trees.

The espionage story needn’t be so coy with its politics. In fact, it’s message of social conservatism and xenophobia is explicitly stated as part of the text. Ideological impurity leads directly to breaches of trust and material losses – the espionage story may not signal victory for conformity via a suitable marriage, but it nonetheless ends with purity restored. The methods used are eerily similar to the detective. Consider the recent film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The film is explicitly an investigation: who is the traitor? Smiley has his list of suspects, and begins foraging for clues to eliminate them. In the crucial scene where Haydon is confronted with his evil-doing, the text focuses entirely on his revulsion for the Capitalist system as implemented by MI6 – they do not draw attention to the victims of his betrayal in the way that crime fiction fetishizes the corpse. Those bodies are just symptoms of his loss of faith, and his punishment is expulsion, allowing him to return to his true ideological home.

The Lives of Others takes this concept very seriously indeed. The film begins when a senior party official uses his influence to initiate an investigation of a promising and popular playwright. At the opening of the film, the playwright not only appears politically acceptable, but there is no suggestion that he has committed any wrongdoing. What the party official and the investigator recognise is a latent potential for ideological impurity. It is future crime that they are concerned about, so they begin observations. The state is almost completely passive in their attempt to find corruption: they sit, watch, and wait. Eventually this patience is rewarded by the observation of ideological divergence, whereby the playwright produces a powerful excoriation of the state of life in the German Democratic Republic. But there’s a problem: the watcher has ceased to be the perfect ideologue and unknown to the playwright becomes complicit in his sedition.

The investigation of the playwright does not follow the familiar pattern from Detective Fiction. There is no careful physical examination of the evidence, there is no careful interrogation of key suspects and creation of crime-boards or timelines. For that matter, the crime shares few similarities – there is no body, for one thing. The whole chain of deductive and inductive reasoning derives entirely from an initial hunch on the part of the investigator that the playwright is, or will become, compromised. If we see an alignment between the ends of the espionage story and the Golden Age detective story, why should the means be so radically different? I think the answer is to take another look at the modus operandi of the Golden Age detectives, or even Sherlock Holmes, and see that while they do a certain amount of legwork, they also spend a significant amount of time waiting for the enemy to simply reveal himself through subsequent crimes. Both Poirot and Holmes have energetic assistants who chafe at inactivity. Yet Holmes solves his most famous case, The Hound of the Baskervilles essentially by sitting in the wilderness for a few weeks, waiting and watching. Poirot’s whole method is based on allowing the “little grey cells” time. This waiting becomes his dominant strategy in his spy story, the Big Four, and it does not seem out of place because Poirot has always been a thinker rather than doer.

What this patience suggests is a certain inexorable quality to ideological impurity, and indeed, crime. Because the fault is not in action, but belief, the criminal cannot help but to give themselves away. Dreyman’s fault in The Lives of Others is that he does not believe in the communist system. Eventually his true feelings must find expression because that is the nature of art. All artists are thus inherently suspect, unless their ideology is pure. Dreyman is regarded at the beginning of the film as apolitical, and so of course the seeds are present for awakening with the wrong kind of political belief. We can see the origin of this notion in fictional detection from the ascendency of physiognomy. In the days of Sherlock Holmes’ creation, it was believed that criminal tendencies could be inherited and phrenology was a credible concept. In the context of Golden Age fiction, race was sufficient in most cases to cause incompatibility, and hence murder (either as victim or perpetrator). Vestigial traces of this remain in spy fiction to this day – think of Alec Trevelyan from Goldeneye, whose ancestry dooms him to villainy. The point is simply that once a source of impurity is perceived, it’s just a matter of time; time that a regime like East Germany had in abundance.

Where The Lives of Others becomes truly interesting is the complicity of the investigator, Wiesler. Wiesler begins the film as a zealot, training future interrogators. He spots Dreyman’s weakness early in the film, advising his boss of it. His boss uses that insight to curry favour with his boss, whose interest in Dreyman is personal. The chief is having an affair with Dreyman’s actress lover, Christa-Maria Sieland. He wishes to be rid of Dreyman, so that he can possess her himself. This positions the minister as an obstacle to love, and hence in a Golden Age story, he’d be a fairly likely victim of the murderer. When Wiesler stalls his investigation, and enjoins Sieland to remain faithful to Dreyman, he positions himself in the role of murderer. Of course, this kind of analogy must be treated very carefully, because there are all kinds of differences. We have sympathy for Wiesler, but it is clear that while Dreyman may be rebellious, it is Wiesler who represents the real perversion of the system and poses the real danger to it. Importantly for this formalist reading, he does not commit his pseudo-murder in order to fulfil his allotted formulaic role. This is not a formula fiction in the way a Golden Age mystery is, where the parts remain constant. We, as critics, are adopting some formulaic apparatus to try and interpret the fiction.

Why does Wiesler intervene? Why does he betray his ideology? The answer, I think, is reasonably simple: he recognises that the system is a lie. His observation leads him to learn of the Minister’s affair with Sieland, which in turn informs him that the entire effort to investigate Dreyman is far from politically necessary. It is a personal vendetta, using the organs of the state effectively as a murder weapon. Once the ideological basis for his activities is destroyed, he can only act out of personal loyalty to a minister whose actions inspire no such loyalty. He is a man of principal, and in the absence of the overarching principal that has guided his life, he resolves to similarly engage in personal morality.

In some ways, the more interesting question is why he was not a more successful or important member of the order of orthodoxy. It is clear from context and conversations that his boss was once a colleague, and a far less talented colleague. It also becomes clear that his boss is not a zealot, just as the minister is not. Grubitz is lax about some rules, happy to hear and tell jokes with the men. The difference becomes clear – Wiesler is part of the system, Grubitz is merely using the system for personal gain. As a non-believer, Grubitz is able to take or leave applications of the system as they suit his end. This is something the zealot cannot do, because they are too blinkered. This stunningly reveals the hollowness of any system built on ideology rather than pragmatism. At first, this revelation seems like a radical critique of the validity of the system, suggesting that the fiction is radical. In fact, it is the ultimate expression of conservatism. The ideologue reforms the world according to his ideas, while the conservative has every incentive to keep it functioning perfectly, even if they don’t believe in it, even if it is entirely broken and hollow.

Most espionage stories are a melange of different story concepts and elements, adopting different story mechanics as needed. As an omnibus genre, it is far more varied and flexible than most of its close relatives. The Lives of Others discards everything except the most important and central activities of the espionage genre. There are no fights, no murders, no heists or confidence scams. It has reduced its story functions down to the most essential part of the genre that differentiates it from its family: spying. By doing so, it provides a clear prism that we can use to see some of the core operating principles of all espionage fiction for what they are.

Handily, it’s a pretty compelling human drama too.

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