What would you do if you were in the habit of eavesdropping on the most secret aspects of someone's life, and you overheard something that was a matter of life and death? What should you do with this knowledge – knowledge that you have no right to possess, and which serves as a constant reminder of your own transgression, but which might very well mean the difference between living or dying? How would you act – or would you act at all?
This troubling (yet potentially illuminating) scenario is exactly the topic addressed by Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) – two films that take eerily similar questions and follow them out to drastically different conclusions.
In The Conversation – Coppola's quietest (and best) film, shot between the critical and box office leviathans The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II – we follow Harry Caul, a San Francisco-based "surveillance expert" who specializes in recording incriminating (and almost impossibly hard to get) audio conversations. Looked upon as a master craftsman by his colleagues in the surveillance business, he is a private (even paranoid) man whose skill with the recorder is overshadowed only by his social awkwardness and overwhelming need for secrecy. Stung by the memory of a tragedy caused many years before as a result of his clandestine work, he goes to great lengths to preserve a safe emotional distance from his subjects, telling his assistant that "I don't care what they're talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording."
Hired by a nameless, faceless businessman who wishes to verify the suspicions of his wife's infidelity, Caul uncovers a violent plot but is unable to interpret the recording's clues as to when, where, or even who exactly is being threatened. Torn between his curiosity and concern over the intended victims and his long-standing principles of emotional detachment and isolation, he is paralyzed by his new-found knowledge.
Eventually, the plotters he has been shadowing become aware of the recording (and of his role in its creation), forcing him into a position that calls for swift and decisive action. But a lifetime spent in the shadows has left Caul incapable of such action. As the recording's threatening details become increasingly clear, he finds himself driven into a state of complete paranoia as a result of his inevitable inactivity. He has been an unwanted observer of the deepest, darkest secrets of others' lives for so long that the role of voyeur is the only one left to him. And so, as the murder plot speeds toward its gruesome completion, he finds himself watching and listening as always, unable (and undeserving) to stand in its way.
In The Lives of Others, an extraordinary, Oscar-winning film from Germany, we are once again given a protagonist whose life's work revolves around the world of voyeuristic surveillance – only this time, it is not the work of a freelancer but government-sponsored spying. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, a quiet-yet-efficient member of the Stasi (the Ministry for State Security in East Germany), is tasked by a corrupt government official with the job of watching a prominent East German playwright in the hopes of uncovering anti-government activities – activities that would clear a path for the corrupt official's interest in the playwright's beautiful actress-girlfriend.
As Wiesler spends day after day observing the playwright and his lover, he grows more deeply involved in their struggles, their sufferings, their hopes and fears. At the same time, he grows increasingly dissatisfied both with the thugs who claim to be protecting his beloved country and with his role in their incessant, unprincipled bullying. Inspired by the playwright's decision to stand up against the iron rule of the country's oppressors, and goaded into action by the repeated injustices of his superiors, Wiesler strives to protect the subjects of his surveillance from the violent storm he knows is coming.
When, at last, that storm arrives, he is caught up in its wake, leaving him a dishonored, defeated man in the eyes of his ranking officers – but a man free at last from the corrupting, voyeuristic life that has been dragging him down for so long.
The similarities between the two films are striking. Coppola and von Donnersmarck employ many of the same methods (both visual and auditory) in their efforts to create tension around a pair of actors engaged in the least cinematic of activities: listening.
Their protagonists both grapple deeply with the troubling consequences of knowing more about their fellow humans than anyone should ever know. And the unsettling way in which audiences are invited to engage in that very same activity made so unappealing by its "heroes" imbues both films with a sense of impending doom, as though someone will soon expose our own activities as hypocritical and sordid.
This climate of unease and imminent danger runs so deeply through both films, they feel almost like chapters of the same story. And yet, it is in the profound differences between the films' main characters that the kinship between their messages becomes most clear.
Caul is a man obsessed with knowledge, but desperate to avoid the consequences that come with it. He wants to discover everything there is to know about those he observes, but he studiously refuses to consider the very natures of the subjects themselves. For him, those upon whom he spies are just part of the job; their humanity is unessential and, in fact, unhelpful.
Nor is he interested in knowing how the information he acquires is used, because such knowledge might well lead to guilt. Caul has ceased to think and react as a human being. When confronted with the opportunity to take action, he retreats once again into his voyeurism, looking on in horror as events he could well have prevented occur before his very eyes.
Wiesler, however, is a radically different man, and the results of his vile activities are just as radically different. He does not seek secret and sacred knowledge divorced from its human subjects, but is driven by the desire to learn more and more about those he observes – what they do, what they think, how they love. It is, to his mind, what any true investigator must do if he wishes to truly understand: live the lives of others. Wiesler's actions and his motivations, while wrong, are still more deeply human than Caul's.
As a result, something unexpected (and wonderful) happens to him along the way: He not only learns about his subjects, he begins to understand them. And with understanding comes appreciation; with appreciation, respect and, eventually, even love. He cannot ignore the sufferings of the playwright and his girlfriend, cannot help but be moved by their devotion to one another. And when the fateful moment finally arrives, he cannot bring himself to destroy them, or even to take part in their destruction.
Unlike Caul, Wiesler's actions are not enough to forestall the tragedy that occurs, but his willingness to act is a sign that one great loss, at least, has been avoided: He has, at last, found his own soul. A man – whose invasive, malignant work and government-sponsored voyeurism are so profoundly in conflict with every instinct and tendency toward good that we humans have – finally embraces his humanity, coming to recognize the goodness present in those he has pursued and tormented for so long.
Both films are, on their surfaces, a warning against the dangers of humans burdening themselves with knowledge they are not meant to carry and powers they are not meant to wield. But at their core, they are a plea for human beings to act as humans – a gentle reminder that we must remain active, engaged participants in our own lives and in the lives of those around us, despite our society's increasing tendencies to the contrary.
In a world where the actions of nations and peoples are instantly viewable, broadcast to the entire global audience with shocking speed and ease without heed of the consequences, it is easy to find ourselves, like Caul, inclined to do nothing but observe tragedies unfolding – paralyzed by our habituation to inactivity. Technological advances and an ever-encroaching media have made us all a bit more voyeuristic than we recognize, and the inclination toward stagnation grows continually stronger.
The Lives of Others reminds us that we must struggle against this inertia – for it is in overcoming it that we are often at our most human, and our best.