“The filmmakers use the dynamics of the primal scene, presumably without conscious awareness of those dynamics, to exact upon the agents of the East German government (GDR) exactly the forms of revenge that Arlow’s patients exact in fantasy upon their parents.”
I have not yet met anyone who saw The Lives of Others who didn’t speak highly of it. It allows us a frightening view of a totalitarian state (East Germany, circa 1984) that rivals anything in Orwell’s imagination. Big Brother is watching and we watch along with him. It also gives us a story of miraculous transformation as a hardened Stasi agent, an “idealist” who lives for the state, becomes a rebel and a closet romantic.
It is a film that can be looked at from many perspectives, but I will focus on one, looking at the film through the prism of the dynamics of the primal scene. I’ll use as my text on the primal scene, Arlow’s paper, “The Revenge Motive in the Primal Scene” (1980). Arlow’s premise, in a nutshell, is that many if not most people experience and organize primal scene memories and fantasies (having to do with witnessing parental intercourse) as an envious onlooker, left out of the parental couple. This leads to fantasies of revenge and reversal, in which the subject projects herself into the primal scene, removing one of the partners or forcing someone else to view her in some version of a reconstruction of the primal scene. He points out that people who have experienced the primal scene in childhood often find ways to expose their own children to the primal scene or its equivalent, in effect reversing their position, making themselves one of the lovers who is observed. He also points to fantasies of revenge against one or both of the partners witnessed in the primal scene and to a frequent confusion of memory and distortions of perception in those affected by primal scene exposure. Arlow used the film Blowup as an example of these dynamics, most eloquently the loss of trust in memory suffered by someone affected by witnessing parental intercourse or its equivalent. All of these dynamics come strongly into play in an examination of The Lives of Others.
A skeptic might argue that The Lives of Others because of its subject matter, state surveillance, is inevitably going to be about voyeurism and that our ideas about the primal scene are merely tacked on to something that has nothing to do with it. We can turn that argument on its head and ask how such material could not evoke unconscious reactions to the primal scene. But I will go one step further. The filmmakers use the dynamics of the primal scene, presumably without conscious awareness of those dynamics, to exact upon the agents of the East German government (GDR) exactly the forms of revenge that Arlow’s patients exact in fantasy upon their parents.
The film tells us that the representatives of the repressive government envy the freer, more fulfilling lives of the people they dominate and constantly observe. Like the primal scene child, these totalitarian agents are forced to watch others live and love. In the film, the people being observed are artists, accustomed to self expression and passion, accentuating our sense of the gap between them and their masters. Ironically, the powerful government officials appear to resent the greater freedom of their subjects.
Colonel Grubitz, a leading figure in the Secret Police, the Stasi, demonstrates this envy in describing methods for dealing with different types of creative artists. For one group, typified by one of the film’s central characters, the recommended approach is temporary detention.
“Complete isolation and no set release date. … Know what the best part is? Most type 4′s we’ve processed in this way never write anything again. Or paint anything, or whatever artists do.”
He wishes to destroy the creativity that he cannot emulate. In another scene, Grubitz teases and verbally tortures a young man who is trying to tell a little joke about Erik Honniker, the head of the East German government.
A second representative of the regime, Bruno Hempf, the Minister for Culture, is in direct sexual competition with a younger, handsomer, more talented playwright, Georg Dreyman. After sitting through Dreyman’s play, the Minister, Hempf, sits at a party enviously watching Dreyman dancing with his lover and the play’s leading lady, Christa Maria Sieland. Like Arlow’s patients, Hempf contrives to interrupt this primal scene derivative, going to the microphone to make a speech in order to stop their dance. He goes to them afterwards and attempts to dance with Christa Maria himself, but she politely rebuffs him.
Hempf intrudes upon the couple more directly than this. We soon learn that he has been having a secret affair with Christa Maria, coercing her with his influence over her career. He has encouraged Grubitz to begin a surveillance of Dreyman, hoping to catch him in subversive activity so that he can remove him completely from Christa Maria.
The filmmakers are showing us that this was a government that, out of envy, tried to drain the life and love out of its citizens. One of those citizens describes the helplessness and hopelessness of the primal scene observer, forbidden to be part of the action. He is an older, supposedly brilliant director, Jerska, who has been blacklisted. He tells Georg Dreyman, “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.” It will drive Jerska to suicide.
But the center of the story, and the focus of the primal scene dynamics, revolves around the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, who conducts the surveillance of the lovers. We first see him, in the film’s opening scene, as a participant in a muted primal scene. He conducts a brutal interrogation of a man who knew someone who defected to the west. The young man is brought into a bare interrogation room where he is forced to sit on his hands as he answers questions from his cold, dispassionate interrogator. We soon see that this interrogation is the centerpiece of a class given by the interrogator for young, aspiring Stasi agents who listen to taped excerpts of the interrogation. When one student remarks that not allowing the man being interrogated to sleep is inhuman, Wiesler, the instructor/interrogator pointedly makes a mark in the student’s file, we assume a black mark against him.
Wiesler is the consummate voyeur. He is a man presented to us as having no personal relationships, a wardrobe designed to be unnoticed, a box-like apartment that lacks the personal touches of a motel room and a face and voice that show no expression or feeling. He is “designed” not to attract attention. He has no life or personality of his own. Seemingly his only function is to observe the lives of others. Yet, somehow he is drawn into the action of the people he is observing as the story unfolds.
Wiesler’s primal scene experience begins even before his official surveillance. He is taken to see one of Dreyman’s plays by his superior, Colonel Grubitz, who describes Dreyman as “the only non-subversive writer we have.” Wiesler is skeptical, saying that Dreyman is someone who should be watched. They sit in a box in a corner above the theater with opera glasses, looking down on and commenting not only on the play and the playwright, but even on the theater goers below, particularly Bruno Hempf and his entourage. After the play, when Grubitz goes down to the orchestra section to talk with Hempf, Wiesler stares down at them from his box and at Dreyman and Christa Maria, his leading lady, as they embrace.
We can use the reaction of one prominent viewer, the New Yorker (2007) film critic, Anthony Lane, who wonders why Wiesler is immediately suspicious of Dreyman. Lane looks for an explanation in Wiesler’s envy as a lonely observer.
“What is it that alerts him? The curtain call, brimming with a warmth that he, as a Stasi operative, will never feel? The kiss that Christa Maria exchanges with Dreyman? Or, most wounding of all, their happiness?”
Immediately, we find ourselves in the midst of Arlow’s dynamics.
As Wiesler and his technicians set up the intricate wiring in Dreyman’s apartment needed to conduct the surveillance, we are reminded of another aspect of the primal scene, the prohibition against watching and remembering what was seen. Pseudo-stupidity has been associated with primal scene experiences. Dreyman’s neighbor across the hall, a middle aged woman, watches them working through the peephole in her door. When the work is finished, Wiesler, somehow knowing that she is watching, goes straight to her door and threatens her that if she speaks of what they have done, her daughter will lose her position at the university. The woman, of course, agrees to ignore what she has seen.
The film’s central primal scene dynamics are built around Wiesler’s surveillance of Dreyman and Christa Maria. Even before the apartment has been wired, we see Wiesler personally observing his subjects from the street. He looks up at a window to see Dreyman and Christa Maria kissing. He notes it in his book. He spies Christa Maria coming out of a car and notes down the license plate, to learn later it is Hempf’s car. At first, Wiesler is an impassive, seemingly disinterested observer. He writes in his first report, for instance, “presumably have intercourse.” By contrast the man who takes the other shift, a coarse, lower level agent, is openly pleased to listen to the love making. “These artists! They’re always at it!”
We see the first sign of emotion when Wiesler sees Hempf about to let off Christa Maria from their tryst. We, the viewers, have been witness to this tryst, a nasty looking scene in which the old, burly Hempf forces himself on a seemingly disgusted Christa Maria. This, too, is a variant of the primal scene, noted for us as we see Hempf’s driver peeking into the rear view mirror. The contrast is striking between this sordid sexual encounter, with the overweight, older Hempf pulling off his pants to reveal a particularly unattractive view of his buttocks, and the affectionate intimacy that we see between the attractive Georg Dreyman and Christa Maria. Despite his power, Hempf remains the outsider, trying to intrude into the primal scene, but achieving only a furtive sexual encounter in the back of a car.
Wiesler, of course, has not witnessed this primal scene. Perhaps he has imagined it. However, the film viewer has been set up to feel disgust and anger at this sordid scene, putting us in sympathy with any anger or disgust that Wiesler is possibly feeling. What we see is that when he sees Hempf’s official car pulling up in front of Dreyman’s building, Wiesler suddenly leaves his position of pure observer and leaps into the action. Saying, “Time for some bitter truths”, he repeatedly activates the buzzer to Dreyman’s apartment, so that Dreyman is forced to go down to the street door to see who is there. There is no one at the door, but Dreyman sees Christa Maria coming out of Hempf’s car.
This is a turning of the tables that Arlow describes, a revenge in the form of having one of the lovers forced to be in the position of the outsider, watching the primal scene. In this context, Wiesler’s comment, “Time for some bitter truths” would appear to express his envy and anger as he revenges himself on Dreyman in particular and the lovers together, very likely in the hope of interrupting their relationship. It does not happen. When Dreyman begins to approach Christa Maria who is lying in bed, she asks him to “just hold me.” We leave them with Georg embracing her.
At this point, we get a clue into Wiesler’s reactions. He is awakened from his listening, presumably to the lovers sleeping embraced, at the end of his shift. We see him heading to his home, where he arranges for a visit from a prostitute, a quick, impersonal bit of sex with Wiesler sitting on a recliner, his shirt still on as the somewhat overweight woman has sex with him. It is more reminiscent of Hempf’s sordid sex with Christa Maria than with the lovers in bed. As if to emphasize the loneliness and primal scene envy of the Stasi, the prostitute lets him know that she visits a “a bunch of you guys” in his building. When it is over, he holds her and pushes his face between her breasts. As she pulls away, he asks her “stay awhile”, but she tells him she has another customer in half an hour.
The viewer is obviously struck by the contrast with the affectionate embrace of Georg and Christa Maria. But from our view through the dynamics of the primal scene, we see something else as well. The seemingly impassive Wiesler, having shown some emotion by trying to interrupt the lovers and break them apart is now expressing his envy by trying to engage in love making of his own, only to find that his plea to be held, to have the prostitute stay longer, is coldly rebuffed.
Arlow stresses the wish of the primal scene witness to enter into the action. Wiesler appears to be attempting to do it through identification with the lovers. In fact, in the next scene, we see him enter the apartment. He kneels beside the bed where the lovers have embraced and made love, then goes a step further, stealing Dreyman’s book of Brecht poetry. As Dreyman comments on its being missing, we see Wiesler in rapt attention in his apartment reading a love poem with hints of longing for the breast:
“One day in blue moon September,
silent under a plum tree,
I held her, my silent pale love,
In my arms like a fair and lovely dream.
Above us in the summer skies
Was a cloud that caught my eye.
It was white and so high up.
And when I looked up,
It was no longer there.”
The identifications continue. Wiesler listens as Dreyman hears that his friend and mentor, Jerska, has hung himself. Dreyman goes to the piano and plays a sonata that Jerska had given him as a birthday present, entitled “Sonata for a Good Man”. Christa Maria stands behind him as he plays, but we also see Wiesler listening. His eyes have a far off look. There is the barest expression on his face that conveys rapt attention. When Dreyman says, “Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?” we may feel that these words are meant for Wiesler, mesmerized by the music and fully drawn into his fantasies of being merged with the lovers.
Wiesler begins to behave, uncharacteristically, like a good man. He meets a little boy in his elevator as he heads home. The boy asks if he is really with the Stasi and reveals that his father has told him that the Stasi are bad men who put people in prison. Wiesler is about to ask the boy his father’s name, but stops himself, implicitly protecting them. Through his identification with the lovers of the primal scene, Wiesler has undergone a fundamental change.
All of this prepares us for the larger step that comes next. It is the night of Christa Maria’s assignation with Hempf. Hempf is more determined than ever to catch Dreyman and tear the lovers apart. Grubitz is eager to accomplish this for his own ambition. But Wiesler is now secretly identified with the lovers as he listens to Dreyman ask Christa Maria not to leave. He tells her that he knows where she is going and asks her not to go (reminiscent of Wiesler’s plea to the prostitute to “stay”.)
Dreyman tells Christa Maria, “You don’t need him. I know about your medication, too, and how little faith you have in your talent. Have faith in me at least, Christa Maria. You are a great artist. I know that. And your audience knows it, too. You don’t need him.”
She answers back that she does need him, that she needs the whole system, as does he. She tells him that he is in bed with them as well, that for all their talent, they can easily be destroyed as Jerska was destroyed.
Wiesler listens to this dramatic verbal version of the primal scene with such intensity that his relief, who startles him with his entrance assumes that Georg and Christa Maria have been “banging.”
Totally absorbed, Wiesler enters a nearby bar. He has begun his second double vodka when Christa Maria enters the same bar a few minutes later for a cognac. He cannot resist once again entering the action, this time more directly. He approaches her, and in a subtle dialogue, he reinforces what Dreyman has told her. He tells her that he is her audience, and that she is a great artist. He urges her to be true to herself. She, in turn, tells him that he is a good man. We later learn that she returned to Dreyman without visiting Hempf.
This is a turn on Arlow’s dynamics that demonstrates the plasticity of human defenses. Envy has found gratification not in revenge, but in identification and altruism. The outcast observer can find his way into the primal scene by identifying with the lovers. Instead of gratifying his envy by breaking them apart, he becomes a powerful agent to hold them together, much like Cyrano de Bergerac, using the defense that Anna Freud (1936) referred to as “a form of altruism” by which the subject can achieve his libidinal goals vicariously.
Wiesler increasingly becomes their protector, writing false reports as Dreyman becomes involved in truly subversive activity in response to Jerska’s suicide, writing and publishing an article on suicide in East Germany. With these false reports, Wiesler is not only protecting the lovers, but also fulfilling the role of a primal scene “victim” who learns to deny what he has seen.
But the film will give the primal scene witness his revenge, nonetheless. It is accomplished though a dramatic, tragic turn of events worthy of the operatic stage. It centers around a hidden typewriter. The Stasi is eager to uncover the author of the subversive article, now published in Der Spiegel. Grubitz suspects Dreyman, but Wiesler’s reports say nothing about the article or its publication. The Stasi has information about the typeface used for the manuscript, but cannot identify the owner. It was written on a typewriter smuggled in for the purpose and hidden by Dreyman under a board between two rooms in his apartment. It appears that he will be safe from discovery unless betrayed.
Angry that Christa Maria has snubbed him by remaining loyal to Dreyman, the other Oedipal loser, Hempf, takes his revenge by revealing to Grubitz that she has been getting drugs (probably tranquilizers) illegally from a dental office.
Faced with arrest and the loss of her acting career, Christa Maria decides to cooperate with Grubitz when asked about the suicide article. At first she reveals the plot, but does not tell them about the typewriter. Grubitz brings Wiesler in to interrogate her. He successfully gets from her the location of the typewriter, using his position as “her admiring audience” while threatening the loss of her career. But in his final betrayal of his bosses and the state, he then removes the typewriter before the Stasi arrive.
Arlow stressed in his paper that one common feature of the primal scene dynamics, at least for men, has to do with the boy’s betrayal by the mother, the love of his life. I have seen a similar dynamic in films with significant primal scene dynamics, including L.A. Confidential and The Crying Game. Here, the woman is once again portrayed as the weak link, the betrayer not only of the witness, but also of her lover. She is made to pay for her betrayal, fulfilling a revenge fantasy related to the primal scene.
Dreyman had been warned by his friends not to trust Christa Maria. We are not told why. Perhaps they know of her flirtation with the minister, perhaps they sense a weakness in her character, perhaps it betrays a mistrust of women on their part. Dreyman does not believe she has betrayed him because when the Stasi first came to his home, they did not find the typewriter. He knew that she knew its location.
Now, Grubitz returns and quickly finds the spot where the typewriter should be hidden. In a moment of disillusionment, Dreyman looks directly at Christa Maria. Guilty and ashamed, she impulsively runs out into the street in front of an oncoming truck. The first to reach her is Wiesler, who tries to tell her that it wasn’t necessary because he had hidden the typewriter. She dies before Dreyman gets to her, asking her forgiveness for suspecting her.
The critic, Lane, wrote, “I was already reaching for my coat. So why press onward? … Against all odds though, the best is yet to come.”
I have referred to this tragic scene, guilt and suicide as operatic. In this case, the opera aint over until the primal scene victim is gratified. If the film had stopped here, Dreyman would have gone on feeling guilty over his distrust that sent Christa Maria to her death. He now believes that she saved him. Of Wiesler, he knows nothing.
Wiesler is demoted by Grubitz, who knows that Wiesler has betrayed him, but cannot prove it. He exiles him to opening letters in a Stasi basement. Wiesler has failed in his attempt to keep the lovers together, failed in his altruism and also has been relegated to a meaningless position. Neither he nor the viewer is in a position to enjoy the full gratification of primal scene revenge.
But the film has one last twist. We move forward past the reunion of Germany. In a chance meeting with Hempf, Dreyman learns that indeed he was under surveillance. He goes back to his apartment and finds the hidden wires. Baffled, he seeks out his Stasi records and discovers the entire transcript. He sees the false, protective reports filled out by Wiesler, identified only as HGW XX17.
Dreyman seeks out the identity of HGW XX17, now a letter carrier walking the streets with his usual anonymity, but decides not to violate Wiesler’s privacy by approaching him. He thanks him in another way.
Dreyman knows now that Christa Maria did, indeed, betray him and that it was Wiesler who saved him. In the film’s final scene, Dreyman recognizes Wiesler as the “good man” to whom he plays his music, allowing him to take Christa Maria’s place in the primal scene.
Wiesler is drawn into a bookstore by a large advertisement for Dreyman’s new novel, “Sonata for a Good Man.” Leafing through the pages, he sees, “Dedicated to HGW XX17, in gratitude.” When the cashier asks if he’d like it gift wrapped, he answers, simply,
“No, it’s for me.”
This is the ultimate revenge and the ultimate gratification for the primal scene observer.
Arlow, J.A. (1980) The Revenge Fantasy in the Primal Scene. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 28: 497-736
Freud, A. (1936) The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. (Revised edition, 1966) New York: International Universities Press.
Lane, A. (2007) The Current Cinema: Guilty Parties: The Lives of Others. New Yorker, February 12, 2007.
Originally published in the most recent (Fall, 1007) edition of the PANY Bulletin.Explore posts in the same categories: Movies