Did Dreyman learn the whole truth?

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This post is exclusively for anyone who saw The Lives of Others, which I finally got around to seeing. If you haven’t seen it, you won’t know what I’m talking about; and what you do understand will spoil it for you anyway. I enjoyed it enormously, for all the reasons other discerning people did: great story, script, acting and cinematography, and powerful themes. There were numerous implausible details, but they can easily be justified in the interest of art.

But one thing bothered me, and none of the half dozen friends I’ve consulted has been able to offer a satisfactory explanation.

If I understood right, when Wiesler interrogated Christa-Maria, she was planning to try and keep the secret of where the typewriter was hidden. But she knew she was in a desperate position: he might not believe her new story, that she had concocted her statement in the previous interrogation about Dreyman’s role in writing the article; even if he did believe it, she would be in big trouble for lying to them. But when he uttered the magic words ‘I am your audience’, she suddenly remembered their previous meeting in the bar and decided she could trust him to somehow fix everything up.

If this interpretation is right, then what subsequently happened was Shakespearean tragedy. Wiesler was able to get to the typrewiter in time to remove it from its hiding place, and in so doing saved Dreyman’s bacon. However, he was unable to communicate to Christa-Maria that he had managed this. So when the Stasi officers visited the apartment the second time and started uncovering the secret cavity, she assumed they would find the machine this time, and knew that Dreyman would believe she betrayed him. Unable to endure this, she fled the scene and threw herself in front of a truck.

So far so good. Evil forces do conspire to produce tragedies. And the film could indeed have ended at this point, as the unerring David Stratton points out. Instead, the writers chose to add an uplifting epilogue in which the truth comes out and justice triumphs. Dreyman finds out that Wieser was sheltering him all that time, and hits on a way of thanking him that is sure to leave not a dry eye in the house.

That would have been a reasonable ending too, as long as the girl’s true role in the business had come to light as well. But as far as the audience knows, Dreyman will go to his own grave still believing that his lover betrayed him.

Wielser, on the other hand, does know the truth — that she had in fact tried to protect Dreyman — but there doesn’t seem to be any avenue whereby Dreyman himself could have learned this. Nothing in the files would have revealed it. He would have found out if only the two men had met face-to-face (and you might think Dreyman would have been eager to arrange such a meeting, precisely in order to tie up such important loose ends). But they don’t meet, and he doesn’t find out.

So that’s my problem. Given that Christa-Maria’s tragedy is unacknowledged and unresolved, the note of unreserved celebration at the end isn’t warranted. It’s not that Wieser didn’t deserve this recognition — he acted decently and bravely. But Dreyman’s ingenious gesture has the effect of cheating Christa-Maria of the means to restore her reputation. Maybe that was supposed to be the real tragedy, but if so it was a bit subtle. All indications were, we were meant to leave our seats smiling, not cursing fate for denying the heroine justice.

But then again I probably missed something.

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Laura
14 years ago

Enjoyed your post, and I don’t think you missed anything. The movie isn’t a tragedy, though – it’s a melodrama. (Melodrama isn’t a pejorative, necessarily.) The Lives of Others very precisely fits the description of the sub-genre Stanley Cavell calls “the melodrama of the Unknown Woman: films where women desire, demand and achieve full personhood and self-knowledge but at the heavy cost of isolation and apparent self-sacrifice. Melodrama’s making a comeback in a big way of late in mainstream film. Germans have always done a good line in it.

For genuine tragedy you need irreconcilable tension between competing necessities: the Law that faces down the individual has to have some degree of legitimacy, and the East German regime hasn’t got that by any stretch of the imagination.

I didn’t like The Lives of Others much. That recourse to Art as justification for historical implausibilities which you mentioned is part of the reason. The same ethos motivates the basic perspective of the movie – it appears that artists are assumed to be somehow more interesting and worthwhile human beings than non-artists and art-making literally gives you a get out of jail free card. I find this a bit distasteful and think that art can’t successfully be used to justify deformities of truth, it should be used in the service of revealing truth rather than the other way around.

Paul Martin
14 years ago

As I said in my post about the film, I had problems but nothing I couldn’t overlook. C-M’s tragedy is unresolved, but hey, that’s life.
Maybe you did miss something (or maybe I did).

On first viewing of this film, I thought the end could have come at the point you allude to. On second viewing, it seemed to reinforce the theme that my post was about – how authoritarian regimes induce a sense of loneliness through fear. That Wiesler and Dreyer never met in person was a powerful point – it is the point.

BTW, are you aware that the actor who played Wiesler was in real life spied on by his wife for the Stasi for some ten years or so? She denies it to this day, but apparently there is a huge file of information that implicates her.

Paul Martin
14 years ago

Ironically, Laura, the Stasi had a particular interest in spying on artists, writers and other such dangerous subversives.

Sir Henry
Sir Henry
14 years ago

I think the fact that Christa-Maria is not paid off is deliberate and poignant. There is no universal justice. That’s the point. Minister Bruno Hempf prospers after the fall of the wall. Wiesler delivers flyers. It is precisely because there is no symmetry as understood in Hollywood is why the movie is so satisfying. BTW, this has the same relationship to melodrama as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has to the western.

Paul Martin
14 years ago

Good comment about who prospers, Sir H. Small detail but I assumed Wiesler was delivering letters as he had been placed in a postal job by the Stasi. I didn’t see the film as melodrama, not that I’m any expert on that genre (or any for that matter).

James farrell
James farrell
14 years ago

Thanks for the comments.

Laura: I’ll try to absorb your lesson on tragedy versus melodrama.

Paul: I knew the actor was East German, but not the rest.

Henry: Wiesler and Hempf get moral if not material justice, but C-M gets neither and indeed seems to be forgotten altogether in the feel-good ending — that’s a different kind of poignancy.

Jc
Jc
14 years ago

One of the few foreign movies, I’ve liked.

I never thought of the end like that. I though her death was a tragedy lost in an earlier time. We’re not menat to worry about her death after the wall comes down. We are just meant to celebrate the freedoms earned. Her death sort of belonged to another era.

Good movie.

Laura
14 years ago

I’m sorry if I went on the lecture, James. ;)

Paul Martin
14 years ago

Lecture? I thought it was a rant. Rants are good. ;)

Gaby
Gaby
14 years ago

Hi James,

I realize this is a ridiculously belated comment, but I only got to watch the movie last night. And it was your post, which I only tasted but didn’t read in its entirety, that was the initial impetus to find out more about, and then watch, the movie.

I agree, a terrific movie. The score was very noteworthy too I thought.

While watching, the first thing that struck me was how easily people are ready to conform to “totalitarian” strictures and to be complicit in the requirements of systematic “State security” and informing on fellow citizens. And this coming in East Germany after the experiences of Naziism and WWII. Milan Kundera deals extensively with this theme.

On your specific point, my take was that Christa did “shop” him, and Wiesler knew this about her and her “tragic” weakness given his skills as an interrogator and on the basis that he would heroically try and remove the typewriter. Hence the detailed map of the apartment. And it was her overwhelming remorse of this that caused her to suicide.

What do you think?

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

That was pretty much my mother’s interpretation. It’s all getting a bit hazy for me, but I think my objection was this: if she decided at some point that protecting Dreyman was too difficult after all, why didn’t she just come out and blab? What was her reading of the coded ‘I am your audience’ message? My mother’s answer to that was that she understood it as a promise that — contrary to what she had been previously been told — her career was still salvageable despite the drug incident, and this was enough to tip the scales for her. And it had to be coded because Wiesler was exceeding his authority in offering such an inducement. This seemed a bit far fetched, but the alternative — that you and my mother are both wrong — is even more improbable.

Gaby
Gaby
14 years ago

I think your Mum is spot on. It’s a Mum thing. I’ve learnt from painful experience to listen and learn from them.