I just finished teaching The Lives of Others in my surveillance class and it made me begin to reflect on a theme within the surveillance film genre. That theme is that of transformative surveillance, that is the act of surveilling others fundamentally transforms the observer (in a good way). In the case of The Lives of Others this is the transformation H. Gerd Weisler as he listens in to the lives of Georg and Christa. Does this transformation then justify the surveillance (without this opportunity to surveil, Weisler would have continued as an efficient Stasi interrogator)? Or is this just part of a romantic humanist theme to these films: the human spirit will win out in the end (cf. the Truman Show). That is, either those surveilled will always resist and surveillance will never be complete, or that the act of surveillance bestirs a fundamental humanity within the observer (meaning that the system will crumble from within). This romanticism is certainly evident in The Lives of Others (which dwells on the transformative potential of music and poetry—Can anyone who truly hears this music be a bad person, Georg asks at one point).
Pondering this theme made me realize as well that this formula of transformation through surveillance applied as well to Wings of Desire (and it is odd to think of this as a film about surveillance, but isn’t it?).
There are films that have less radical transformations of those who surveil: The Conversation (Harry’s moral center has always been there, it just finally triumphs over the technicist rationalizations he uses to do his work [“I just make the tapes”]) and Disturbia (Kale finally starts taking responsibility for his life and actions).
Interestingly, I don’t think Jefferies is transformed through his experiences in “Rear Window.”
And then there are any number of films where the voyeur is untouched by what he or she surveils (this is especially true in slasher films). Are any of those who surveil transformed in Enemy of the State? I think Fiedler (Jack Black’s character) is just operating under CYA principles and doesn’t have a moral revelation. This final squashing of humanity (that is, the eradication of humanity in those surveilled, and the refusal of the possibility that the observers could be transformed) is after all the point of Orwell’s 1984. O’Brien isn’t going to change because of what he observes in Winston.
David Lyon argues that surveillance is a relationship and therefore is transformative of both parties. However he also points out the most surveillance today isn’t of this direct, face-to-face kind but is the use of computer protocols to sort all kinds of data. There is no hope of transformation of a computer program scanning faces or credit data.
So is this theme of transformation a useful way of thinking about surveillance films?
1 week ago