Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Although it has become a somewhat sappy and romanticized notion, the individual artist really does pose a threat to all totalitarian regimes. The romance should not take away from the reality of the artist’s power. Yosif Feyginberg’s 2002 documentary Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey provides a concrete example of that power in action. In 1957, a 24-year-old Canadian virtuoso pianist named Glenn Gould visited the Soviet Union on an official mission of cultural exchange. Gould’s presence made such an impact among the Russians who heard him play that, fifty years later, Feyginberg is able to interview people for whom the encounter with Gould is still one of the most significant events of their life. A theatre director named Roman Viktyuk describes a packed house in Leningrad, waiting for Gould to arrive: "The place was full of people. Everyone here was expecting a miracle." That expectation was already subversive¯miracles weren’t supposed to be necessary after the Revolution. Vladimir Tropp, a pianist, adds: "Gould was the first to reveal this world to us. The Berlin Wall existed in music as well, and perhaps Gould was one of those who were breaking that wall." Another fan confesses that "we started to live by each recording of Gould." The Russians who heard him play began to love Gould more than the Revolution.

The power of the artist before a totalitarian state is a central element in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Academy Award¯winning film The Lives of Others . Hailed by everyone from Roger Ebert to the Village Voice to William F. Buckley, the film takes place in the East Germany of 1984 and centers on the moral transformation of Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a straight-edge, true-believing son of the Revolution and an agent of the Stasi , the communist secret police. A grubby minister of culture named Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) has ordered Wiesler to tap into the life of Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a playwright who happens to be the lover of an actress whom Hempf is secretly, obsessively pursuing. Hempf wants Wiesler to uncover some pro-Western and counter-revolutionary dirt that he can use to destroy Dreyman and take the actress for himself. Albert Camus reminds us that there are crimes of passion and crimes of logic, and in this case, passion (Hempf) and logic (Wiesler), both evil in their own way, are united in a common cause, the persecution of Georg Dreyman. In the course of the film, however, Wiesler will change ¯he will betray the Revolution and he will save Dreyman from conviction and arrest.

What causes Wielser to change is not argument, but beauty. He is moved to tears when he hears Dreyman (through hidden microphones) playing a piece titled "Sonata for a Good Man" on the piano. Dreyman plays the piece in mourning after he has heard that a close friend committed suicide. Wiesler also pilfers one of Dreyman’s books¯an anthology of Bertolt Brecht’s poetry¯and reads with wonder, his eyebrows raised heavenward for the first time. Apart from art, Wiesler is also touched by the artists themselves: by Christa-Marie, the coveted actress, and her struggles with addiction and artistic insecurity (not to mention Hempf’s disgusting sexual advances); by Dreyman’s problematic balancing act between his loyalty to the GDR and love for his subversive friends (among them, the director who commits suicide). It doesn’t happen abruptly, but Wiesler changes¯he "loses faith in his ideology," as von Donnersmarck explained to PBS’s Charlie Rose . By the end of the film, Wiesler has secretly subverted Hempf’s commissioned investigation of Dreyman. He has abandoned ideas¯destructive ideas¯for a pair of human faces.

Captain Wiesler’s change is the dramatic axis of this film. A.O. Scott of the New York Times disagrees with this interpretation . Scott concludes his generally positive review with the assertion that "the film’s deepest, most challenging paradox" is that "people don’t change, and yet the world does." When an interviewer from a British online magazine asked von Donnersmarck whether he agreed with Scott’s judgment, the filmmaker replied, "I wouldn’t. I was a little surprised by that. But I supposed it depends on what you define as change." And yet The Lives of Others has been so widely praised by such a diverse array of critics and publications that it would be hard to imagine all those encomia coexisting peacefully. More disturbing is that a few of the film’s admirers are threatening the very integrity of the work they admire by putting into question the believability of Captain Wiesler’s transformation.

With the exception of Scott, most every other critic concurs that Wiesler’s transformation is the primary dramatic engine of the film and the key to its meaning. It’s the substance and motivation behind the transformation that befuddles some of von Donnermarck’s admirers¯admirers who praise his overall accomplishment but who find fault in the crucial dramatic element in the film’s plot. The British political commentator Timothy Garton Ash writes in the New York Review of Books that he was "powerfully affected" by the film, and yet "Wiesler’s own conversion, as shown to us in the film, seems implausibly rapid and not fully convincing . . . . It would take more than the odd sonata and Brecht poem to thaw the driven puritan we are shown at the beginning." Even Catholic screenwriter and blogger Barbara Nicolosi is "a really big fan," and yet "the film needs a stronger moment to cause the Stasi agent to move out of coldness towards the objects of his spying and into empathy. Right now, the film is a bit too mysterious about it. An American studio story meeting would have caught that early on."

These admirer-critics do slight harm with their praise. Any criticism that calls into question the plausibility of Wiesler’s transformation calls into question not only the coherence of the film itself but also the power of the artist against totalitarianism and ideology. Wiesler’s change is indeed "mysterious" but in the way that Albert Einstein used the word: the sense that "behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly." I quote a scientist here on purpose: A scientist’s work relies on the premise that reality is intelligible, and for Einstein such intelligibility does not nullify mystery. Wiesler experiences the mysterious when he encounters beauty, and it changes him.

Jacques Maritain writes in Art and Scholasticism that the splendor in beauty lies in its intelligibility: "If beauty delights the intellect, it is because it is essentially a certain excellence or perfection in the proportion of things to the intellect." This doesn’t mean that beauty is ordered and logical in the way mathematics is ordered and logical¯it has its own kind of order, distinct from quantitative order. But the appeal that beauty has for human beings is a reasonable appeal¯human beings are rational animals, and our taste for the beautiful is not simply visceral, but rational. The contemplation of beauty is a rational endeavor that lies in the realm of knowledge¯nonconceptual knowledge, but knowledge nonetheless.

Captain Wiesler himself does not develop a profound conceptual understanding of his own experience. As Maritain describes it, his intellect, "diverted from all effort of abstraction, rejoices without work and without discourse." But the lack of abstract reflection on his experience does not take away from its reasonableness and persuasiveness. Wiesler does not have time to "reflect . . . on the causes of this delight." He must act. He saves Dreyman’s life.

Wiesler’s experience of change is completely different from that of the poor dissident being "broken" by the Stasi in the opening scene of the film. To compare the two as one of my colleagues does ("The secret policeman claims it takes 40 hours of interrogation to break down a suspect; von Donnersmarck manages to dismantle Wiesler in a mere two hours and 15 minutes") is like arguing that the experience of entering prison is the same as the experience of leaving prison, because they both require the turning of a key. Ash’s criticism is more damning, however. Ash directly rejects the notion that music and poetry could really transform a totalitarian mind. He reminds us that the Nazi soldiers in Schindler’s List , during the long and painful scenes depicting the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, knew enough about music to debate with each other whether it was Mozart or Bach that the doomed Jew was playing on the piano. Neither was moved to tears; neither changed.

But the question to ask is: What else does Ash think is needed in order to make Wiesler’s transformation believable? What else is needed to convince the Nazi soldiers to stop their butchery? I doubt that reasoned and sustained argument could accomplish what beauty and pity could not. The problem is not that poetry and music are not persuasive enough, but that the totalitarian mind limits the scope of reason within itself and is not open to being persuaded by a new experience¯especially the experience of the mysterious, which it quickly debunks. The greatness of The Lives of Others lies in showing us that the totalitarian mind is more vulnerable than we think, and that a single moment of beauty can pierce through decades of ideological brainwashing. As Glenn Gould’s case shows, the power of the artist lies not necessarily with the political content of his work but rather in the intelligibility of the beauty that he creates. The Cold War is over, but lies of ideology and totalitarianism are still with us, and that’s why this film¯itself a work of intelligible beauty¯will endure.

But the film also makes a passing comment about the free world. The most culpably under-quoted line in the film is uttered by the villain Minister Hempf, when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he muses to an uninspired Dreyman: "What a strange new country. Nothing to rebel against, nothing to believe in." Dreyman’s writer’s block is a symptom of this post¯Cold War emptiness¯like many of his friends, his identity until now has been oppositional, against the regime. Now the regime is gone. Implicit in Hempf’s sneer are the questions being disputed in Washington and Brussels over the essence of Western identity. It’s good to know that the German von Donnersmarck, a skilled artist with a keen understanding of power of art, is helping to answer those questions.

Santiago Ramos writes about art for the Kansas City weekly The Pitch .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles