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.