(As part of the Writing for the Public Realm class the students were asked to analyze an interior inspired by the famous Nest magazine. Dora Sapunar took a look at the interiors in the German film The Lives of Others (2006).)
At some point we started equating interiors with the people living inside them. From the earliest interior design manuals, such as Elsie de Wolfe’s House in Good Taste the homeowner was cautioned that the interior reflects his or her personality. To visitors, objects in apartments seem to recede as they reveal the person that they’re representing. But what can we glean from an apartment that appears to be mute. Too drab to indicate character, too cold to convey emotion. Can sometimes the very existence of these gaps in the communication of interiors be indicative of the person inhabiting the space?
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), a 2006 German Oscar-winning film attempts to achieve precisely this by letting the viewer grapple with the gaps and silences of a subtle narrative revolving around Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi surveillance officer, who is assigned to monitor the apartment of a playwright suspected of working against the government. As the task ends up being a ploy by a political dignitary to force the playwright’s girlfriend to accept his advances Wiesler grows disillusioned by his profession and obsessed with the lives of the people he is monitoring.
Nowhere is the difference between the lives of the officer and the playwright more glaring than in their apartments. While the playwright’s apartment is an idealized vision of a creative sanctuary, which could be criticized for being too Western even for a bohemian director, the Stasi officer’s apartment is a lesson in socialist drabness. In a high rise that is both nondescript and menacing, his apartment seems to be a mere shell for basic human needs. A symphony of beige and pale yellow it manages to be at once garish and austere. The furniture is for the most part made of wood, all in different hues of brown. The only piece of furniture we see Wiesler use is the couch, whether for watching television or in an almost grotesque encounter with a prostitute. The brown striped couch is so common in socialist apartments that it becomes almost a signature of this style, if style is a word we can use in that particular case. A wooden frame encloses pillows made of a rough cloth that bring back memories of horizontal marks on the skin for anyone who ever sat on these couches with bare legs. Apart from the starkness of the unadorned room it’s the quiet that seems the most distinguishing characteristic of the interior, and it makes the sounds of the television that Wiesler eats his dinner to or the prostitute’s voice almost jarring. The apartment seems stuck in the past, subtly saturated with ideas, which underlie an ideology, unaware of the seismic shifts that would within half a decade completely change the public and private face of Berlin.
There is no trace of Wiesler in this interior. He seems to have no personal belongings, no possessions with emotional value. The empty shelf spaces are indicative of his lack of interest in anything besides his political party and the work he does for it. Instead of personal photographs, paintings are scattered intermittently over the walls. They are completely impersonal depictions of pastoral scenes and cityscapes done in a vernacular style. Remnants of this völkisch tradition were not uncommon in socialist interiors. Evidences of it linger in the doilies that cover surfaces as both decorative ornament and functional objects meant to collect dust. Also visible is the wish to achieve warmth through texture, in the textiles of the couch, rug and the curtains, as well as in the wood grain of the commode. To the visitor the textures would still feel uncomfortable and unnatural, the textiles too rough, the lacquered wood too smooth. We could easily say that the apartment personifies the two incompatible ideas of socialism, man as machine and man connected to the bucolic ideal.
But strangely enough, had our only glimpse into this interior been through the medium of a black and white photography we might have been fooled into thinking we were looking at a modernist apartment straight out of an architectural magazine. The focus on utility, the clean surfaces and the lack of knick-knacks were characteristics that permeated apartments in the West. The similarities can be traced to similar artistic sources, but what is a sign of elegance and wealth in one case is a symbol for oppression in the other. We are left to wonder as to how did two completely different ideologies produce such similar results in the domestic sphere.
The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was fond of a slogan drawn from Friedrich Engels’ 1873 essay proclaiming that the “housing question” was inseparable from the “social question”. At the same time it had to deal with being bombarded by visions of housing from the West, which was an endless source of both loathing and attraction. So the question of housing became a question of political legitimacy in the new world order. The home became a political battleground as the government tried to prove that by providing its citizens with standardized housing that is both functional and decent, it would achieve utopian ideals of an egalitarian society. In their search for precedents they turned to Le Corbusier. Attracted by his writings that longed for design that would meet the universal needs of the people, they set out to find solutions that would fit all. Still the ennobling purpose of these interiors, the humanist plan of the socialist governments was lost in the oversimplified lessons adapted from Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. The home that was meant to achieve the maximum level of efficiency oftentimes ended up being simply alienating.
But this was not the destiny of all socialist interiors. What was crucial was the added ingredient of living breathing people. The humanism of socialism, the phrase Weisler himself uses in the movie in the completely different context of interrogating a prisoner, was in the humans themselves. A GDR apartment from the fifties and sixties would have acquired a completely new life by the Orwellian year 1984 in which the movie takes place. Through their creativity people did the most with the less that was at their disposal. So while Weisler exercised his humanity in the lives of others, his apartment was a representation of what socialism would’ve been if there was no inherent sense of humanity. And so we learn that the character of Wiesler cannot be explained by merely equating his interior and the times he lived in.
The austerity of Wiesler’s apartment relates to another issue that is so commonly tackled in films. The fascination with the lives of others is in a sense a base human urge. Many movies have acted as cautionary tales against the dangers of voyeurism. The striking similarity with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 The Conversation in which a raincoat-clad Gene Hackman slowly spirals into obsession while surveilling a young couple tells us how pervasive these ideas are. The similarity with Weisler is evident in the clothes the two men wear: suits, trench-coats and uniforms are all sartorial expressions of anonymity and voyeurism while the empty interiors of their apartments act as architectural equivalent of trench-coats. Their apartments also resemble hotel rooms, another common interior which through its anonymity and lack of identity allows for espionage and mystery. It is perfectly in tune with the moral no-man’s land of what both these men are doing that their apartments are a no-man’s land of sorts too, an empty stage while the action takes place somewhere else.
In essence the character of Wiesler acts as a symbol in The Lives of Others. He is a symbol of both an ideology and an archetype. The ideology is socialism in its goal of creating an utopian society based on efficiency, simplicity and hard work. The archetype is the voyeur, the secret onlooker who lives vicariously through the people he observes. These symbols are played out on the stage of the interior. While the interior in The Lives of Others remains empty it gives rise to a character, Gerd Wiesler. And gives further evidence to the old truism that sometimes silence speaks louder than words.