James Harding, Associate Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies, University of Maryland, College Park
Surveillance and Privacy, A Decade after "Das Leben der Anderen"

It has been over a decade since Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck wrote and directed Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), a not altogether historically accurate yet nonetheless interesting film from 2006 about the destructive methods of surveillance employed by the East German Secret Police (STASI).

Briefly stated, the film focuses on the gradual disillusionment of the Stasi officer, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, who is tasked with gathering compromising information on a successful East German playwright by the name of Georg Dreyman, which in turn can be used against him by the Minister of Culture who is interested in Dreyman’s actress-girlfriend. This takes place around 1984 and eventually results in the girlfriend’s suicide and in the Stasi agent Wiesler sacrificing his own career to protect the playwright from the unjust plot against him. It all makes for a solid low-key thriller. But what makes the film worthwhile is von Donnersmarck’s willingness in its final segments to push the narrative forward some five or six years to the point when, after the fall of the wall, the previously targeted playwright finally grasps what actually transpired earlier. Reading his Stasi files, Dreyman realizes the extent to which the Stasi had invaded his and his girlfriend’s privacy as well as the extent to which that invasion constituted an obscene abuse of power, and, following the film’s basic conceit, he also recognizes the personal sacrifice that the individual agent Wiesler made on his behalf. Indeed, by the film’s end, that sacrifice has become an idealistic and, to a great extent, unrealistic point of contrast to a political system tempted and ultimately corrupted by the powerful tools of surveillance at its disposal.

Watching von Donnersmarck’s film today is an odd exercise. Amid the massive collection of personal data about us, the sea of CCTV cameras that surround us, the GPS systems that constantly track us, and the sophisticated technologies like face recognition software that routinely identify us – all of which is now a part of our daily lives – one cannot help but be struck with how quaint and dated the surveillance methods in Das Leben der Anderen seem.  In fact, given the ubiquity of advanced surveillance technologies today, it is almost tempting to agree with the former Minister of Culture in von Donnersmarck’s film when, during a chance encounter with Dreyman after the fall of the wall, he tells the playwright that “Life was good in our little Republic. Many people only realize that now.” The Minister is, of course, a despicable character in the film, and beyond the film itself there is no need to be nostalgic for an authoritarian state that actually deserved to be cast into the dustbin of history. But with regard to the issues of surveillance in society that we now confront, the fictional Minister’s comments may not be that far off of the mark. The limitations of the tools available to the East German authorities ultimately kept those like von Donnersmarck’s fictional Minister in check. In this respect, maybe life was good back then, and maybe privacy was something that it no longer is.

At the very least, one could reasonably conclude that if the Stasi then had had today’s surveillance technologies at their disposal, the German Democratic Republic might plausibly still exist. But on a less hypothetical level, the fact that the technologies today are significantly more powerful than those available to the Stasi back in the 1980s simply means that the possibility and the temptation to abuse the power they offer have only increased and that we ought not be naïve in our assessment of what those possibilities ultimately mean. And this brings us to the larger issue of privacy raised by von Donnersmarck’s film and to the odd historical differences on display in it. Quick though viewers of Das Leben der Anderen are likely to recognize how antiquated the surveillance technologies represented in it are and quick though they may be in recognizing the rapid evolution of surveillance technologies from 1984 to 2017, we seem much slower – indeed, much more reluctant – to admit how that evolution has radically transformed the very notion of privacy as such.

We seem to see the idea of “privacy” and the right to it as fixed and unchanging principles rather than asking how they have evolved with and have been transformed by the advent of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technologies. This is not some sort of abstract point as much as it is a recognition of surveillance’s most problematic fault lines and contradictions – like those exemplified, for instance, in the fact that surveillance, which literally means to view from above, consistently inclines toward configurations that circumvent “oversight” and that thus snatch away the privacy of individual citizens while preserving it elsewhere. Indeed, what a film like Das Leben der Anderen never quite foresees is that such circumventions tend to facilitate the most egregious invasions of privacy when they result not from the abuse of state power but rather from cultivating surveillance as a private enterprise whose technologies are safeguarded by the copyright laws, and it is worth contemplating what those laws actually mean for privacy itself in an era of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technologies. 

Those laws touch upon what is arguably one of the deepest contradictions governing surveillance societies today: the software that surreptitiously records and decodes images of individuals without their permission is protected by laws that limit access to it and that give the owners explicit control over who can see and use it. One can simply say that this is how intellectual property works within our society. But with regard to issues of privacy and surveillance, the stakes are substantially different than with other intellectual property. For in practical terms, what the laws protecting the proprietary software of surveillance mean is that the most protected realms of privacy in the surveillance society are no longer human, and that surveillance technologies have taken on a life of their own: “ein Leben der Anderen.”  In short, the very software that enables almost incomprehensible invasions of privacy is protected by laws that guard its privacy. This is the new privacy. In a very literal sense, it is a post-human privacy as well.