Chapter 8

Audibility Is a Trap: Aural Panopticon in The Lives of Others (2006)

I) Warming-Up the Ear

1) According to the painter Caravaggio, a meandering grotto in Syracuse, Sicily, reminiscent of a gigantic pinna (outer ear) was once used as a prison. Due to its acoustic architecture, the wards could always hear every single word the inmates said and could therefore easily and early on stop conspiracies and uprisings. Although it is not clear whether this is a legend or real, it gives an account of organized surveillance as early as the sixteenth century. Why do you think Caravaggio called this cave the "Ear of Dionysius"?

2) What do you know about the Stasi (Staatssicherheit)?

3) Does seeing an interaction between two people give you more information than listening to it? Can you get a false impression through observing something just visually? Or observing just acoustically?

4) How do you behave if you feel that you are being observed? Does this change your actions? The volume of your speech? Your choice of words?

5) Visit the Web site of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the only example of the panopticon model in the United States, and take a virtual tour at to find out about floor plans and learn about their most infamous inmate.

II) Working with the Text

1) What is "internalized obedience" in Foucault's writing and how does this relate to the film The Lives of Others? How does Lenk observe the "panaural state" in this film?

2) What was the function or purpose of the Stasi's wiretapping? How did the observed respond to constantly being under surveillance?

3) What are the dialectic functions of sound? Describe how Wiesler uses sound to both exercise and overcome control.

4) Why does the aural panopticon mock agency?

5) What role does the "Sonate vom Guten Menschen" ("Sonata of a Good Man") play in Wiesler's character development?

III) Further Food for Thought

1) Lenk's chapter does not seek to legitimize the Stasi's evil behavior between 1950 and 1989 and excuse the death, imprisonment, and misery of thousands and thousands of observed citizens. Though Lenk argues that there was no escape from the aural panopticon and the rigid regime of the GDR, it should be said that there was a lot of resistance to the GDR and to the Stasi. Musician Wolf Biermann, who was expelled from the GDR for criticizing the regime, is just one prominent example. Many other instances of resistance did not get as much publicity, but some are nevertheless well documented. Find out more about Wolf Biermann and search for more examples.

2) What were the acoustic surveillance practices during McCarthyism?

3) What does the PATRIOT ACT stand for and how is it connected to acoustic surveillance?

4) Watch the 2006 film The Lives of Others. What sounds and colors are associated with Wiesler and the Stasi officials as opposed to Dreyman and Sieland?

5) Does it bear significance that The Lives of Others takes place in 1984?

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