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Diamond, D. (2008). Empathy and Identification in Von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 56(3):811-832.

(2008). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 56(3):811-832

Empathy and Identification in Von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others

Diana Diamond

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, set in the German Democratic Republic in 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has been called the first accurate depiction of the psychological terror wielded by the Stasi, the East German secret police, who safeguarded the dictatorship of the proletariat. The film is about the psychological and political transformation of a Stasi officer, Wiesler, who undertakes the surveillance of a prominent playwright and his actress lover. The mechanisms through which Wiesler comes to empathize and identify with the subjects of his investigation, as he observes and listens in on the rich blend of passion, poetry, and politics that characterizes their lives, are explored in depth. Wiesler's transformation is based in part on the capacity to form implicit models of the behavior and experiences of others, based on the mirror neuron system, that Gallese and his colleagues call “embodied simulation.” Underpinning the processes of empathy and identification so central to this film, embodied simulation is an unconscious and prereflexive mechanism through which the actions, emotions, and sensations we observe activate internal representations of the bodily and mental states of the other. Embodied simulation also expands our understanding of the power of the primal scene, which has long been identified as a major organizer of unconscious fantasies and conflicts throughout life, and which forms the central metaphor of the film. Embodied simulation scaffolds our aesthetic response to art, music, and literature, underlies the dynamics of spectatorship, and potentially catalyzes resistance to totalitarian mass movements.

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