The Transformation of Sociogenic Autistic Defences in the Lives of Others

By Priel, Beatriz | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, April 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Transformation of Sociogenic Autistic Defences in the Lives of Others

Priel, Beatriz, International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.


Contemporary psychoanalytic studies of cinema underscore this art's ability to mediate between specific analytic ideas and questions of collectively experienced trauma (Mulvey, 2003, p. xvi). In her analysis of Murderers Among Us, Chasseguet-Smirgel considers the fact that great artistic creations "cannot escape the context in which they were produced, just as dreams contain the day residues that contributed to their formation" (2001, p. 184). Moreover, contemporary cinema, and contemporary theatre as well, can be seen as replacing the role the will of the gods played in shaping the fate of individuals in classical tragedy with that of the laws decreed by social institutions. The Lives of Others, (2006; director, Florian Hanckel von Donnersmarck) constitutes a masterful example of film's mediation between situations of long-standing collective trauma and the activation of specific defence mechanisms. This film represents and creates an experience of the special forms of protection undertaken vis-à-vis the terrifying primitive anxieties that are aroused as basic human freedoms are brutally limited, and human relationships are perverted by a sociopolitical system with unlimited power. As presented in The Lives of Others, these protective mechanisms can be understood as following patterns similar to those of the measures that develop to protect the individual from annihilating anxieties in the earliest developmental stages. Using Tustin's basic model of autistic processes (Tustin, 1986, 1990, 1991), these forms of protection can be seen as parallels to autistic defences, as a self-generated shell whose purpose is to protect the primordial self from intolerable states of non-integration. This film also represents important aspects of processes that facilitate the gradual abandonment of these autistic defences and the attainment of psychic growth. The process of change of basic autistic forms unfolds in this film through the fantasized relationships between the two main protagonists, Wiesler and Dreyman, against the background of Art.

Film overview

The specific historical context is East Germany in the Orwellian 1984. It was a time when the frightening secret police, the Stasi, used an extensive network of spies and surveillance equipment to uncover every possible secret of each citizen. The film provides an inside look at how a surveillance society can make everyone a potential suspect and convert almost anyone into an informant and obedient co-operator with the regime. In the film's first scenes, Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, a sombre, keen supporter of the status quo, is shown working and teaching; his interrogation techniques are displayed and carefully explained. Wiesler also goes to the theatre with his old classmate and now Lieutenant-Colonel Gurbitz to see an acclaimed play by the well-known playwright Georg Dreyman. Even as he teaches and watches the play, Wiesler remains the alert and faithful secret policeman, ready to carefully document any real or imaginary signs of danger to the cause. In the theatre, obeying Minister Hempf's order, Gurbitz assigns Wiesler to spy on Georg Dreyman and discover some sort of incriminating material. Microphones are then installed in Dreyman's apartment. His activity is monitored 24 hours a day and recorded in written reports that are meticulously kept by Wiesler and his assistant. Dreyman is totally unaware that he is being monitored.

Carefully fulfilling his assignment, Wiesler listens to conversations, phone calls and lovemaking, as well as to Dreyman playing the 'Sonata for a Good Man' on the piano. Wiesler soon finds out that the real reason for his operation is not Dreyman's alleged political betrayal, but Minister Bruno Hempf 's desire to eliminate a romantic rival. The Minister is attracted to the writer's girlfriend, Christa-Maria.

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