One of my all-time favorite films, 2006’s The Lives of Others, concerns life under the Stasi in east Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the film, a Stasi operative named Gerd Wiesler is tasked with surveilling a pair of lover-artists, writer Georg Dreyman and actress Christa-Maria Sieland, because the state suspects them of conspiracy. As Wiesler watches over and listens into this pair’s lives, he begins to fall in love with them, a transformation which beckons him to intervene on their behalf.
In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Dreyman learns that his friend and mentor, the director Albert Jerska, has committed suicide due to being blacklisted by the Stasi. In shock and mourning, Dreyman takes out and plays on piano the sheet music Jerska had given him for a song called “Sonata for a Good Man,” all while Wiesler listens in through wire-tapping.
After Dreyman has finished playing this incredibly emotional music, he turns to Sieland, who stands at his back, and reflects, “Can anyone who’s heard this music, I mean truly heard it… Can he really be a bad person?” Without knowing it, in these lines Dreyman refers to Wiesler, his performance’s captive audience.
Wiesler is forever changed by this experience, something we the viewers see in his actions to come. Where before his project of surveilling Sieland and Dreyman had been calculated and misanthropic, now he writes about their travails almost as a playwright unto himself, lavishing in the beauty to which he is inheritor. Additionally, he decides to let Dreyman get away with passing an incendiary document through the Berlin Wall to west Germany, an act which engenders the events of the film’s climax.
Before addressing these events and the meaning I derive from them, I want to pause to introduce the Enneagram, a personality system through which I have always analyzed and understood Wiesler’s transformation.
In the Enneagram, each of nine personality types is defined by a core wound, insecurity, and desire, and the type by which I would catalog Wiesler–which also happens to be my own type–is the type five. For the type five, also known as the observer, the core wound is feeling overwhelmed as a child, which leads the five to develop knowledge in order to feel safe. If only the five can know everything, can feel intelligent, then the five believes it will be able to avoid the vicissitudes of the world which so terrify it; as a result of this, the five falls into its negative manifestation, which is the hoarding of knowledge. Paradoxically, this hoarding in fact makes the five feel less secure, because the five fails to take the practical actions which engender a feeling of competency.
Alternatively, the five can learn embodiment and faith, through which it becomes possible for the five to take action even despite possessing imperfect knowledge. In other words, precisely by realizing it is impossible to know everything, the five becomes able to take decisive stands in the world, something which chips away at the five’s core feelings of insecurity. Through making this shift of focus, the five comes to resemble the healthy Enneagram eight, a more physical type known as the challenger.
As a five literally tasked with observation, Wiesler’s very passivity while imbibing Dreyman’s “Sonata for a Good Man” makes him the perfect recipient of the music’s inherent message, and this message changes Wiesler inexorably. Specifically, it brings the latter from his head down into his heart and body, sources which speak to him with clear directives to act. As someone who not only thinks about what he is seeing and hearing, but feels their content, it becomes physically impossible for Wiesler to remain an indifferent bystander: he must become involved, and his first undertaking in this regard is to let slip through the aforementioned document written by Dreyman.
Notably, Dreyman has written the document on a rare and particular typewriter, and so tracing this typewriter back to its source becomes essential for the Stasi. Although Dreyman has a secret compartment in his apartment where he hides the typewriter, Sieland knows of its location, and it is not long before she is captured by the Stasi and, under threat of both torture and blacklisting, gives away the location. Following this, and as the Stasi invade the apartment to unearth the typewriter, Sieland commits suicide by throwing herself before a moving vehicle.
However, unbeknownst to her, Wiesler has in the meantime made a second intervention: he has entered the apartment ahead of the Stasi to retrieve and hide the typewriter. Sabotaging the organization’s plans in this way, he firmly secures his own blacklisting in the form of low class labor until the time of the Berlin Wall’s dissolution nearly a decade later; nevertheless, he also exalts himself to the status of hero, changing events through his own power and inarguably choosing a side.
I call The Lives of Others the ultimate Enneagram five template because it teaches that, for the type five, watching can itself prove a crucible for change, altering us in ways that henceforth make non-action impossible. Intervening according to our values, we affect the world in positive ways, simultaneously improving our own confidence and building a stable personality. Like Wiesler in the film, there is no need to be the artist oneself, creating the revolutionary technology; even as one who thinks on and interacts with this technology, there is the opportunity to take creative stands, something which fleshes us out as human beings.
And so, as I have mulled over this film in the years since my first viewing, I have often asked myself: “Which Wiesler am I being: the one who can hear Dreyman’s ‘Sonata for a Good Man,’ or who can’t really? Which Wiesler am I being: the one who intervenes to steal the typewriter, or who merely watches while his allies are deposed?” I want to be the best Wiesler I can be, the man who not only listens, but listens deeply, is transformed, and acts.