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The Lives of Others By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, March 20, 2007

In the winter of 2003, while working as a foreign correspondent in Germany, I watched a theater-full of young Berliners laugh along to Goodbye Lenin!, a lighthearted film that re-imagined communist East Germany as a quaint little world unspoiled by global capitalism and the excesses of modern consumerism -- a shade dogmatic, perhaps, but certainly more innocent.

Not until later did I discover that the comedy was itself an expression of a larger cultural nostalgia for the defunct East German state, a phenomenon appositely dubbed Ostalgie. At the time, it seemed an unhappy finding: Fourteen years after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, this was how Germans had chosen to remember the 41-year nightmare of the communist era -- with its grim gallery of tinpot dictators; its all-watching Ministry for State Security, the Stasi, which kept files on 6 million of East Germany’s 16 million residents; and its all-seasons climate of fear: as socialism with a smiley face. 

In retrospect, this judgment may have been too severe. Not because Ostalgie was not unseemly; it certainly was. Rather, it was still too early for the country to come to terms with the legacy of communism. That this was indeed the case is abundantly confirmed by the new German film The Lives of Others, a popular hit in its home country that has proved an equally popular import, winning a richly deserved Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. A profoundly moving portrait of life beneath the boot of the East German dictatorship and its Stasi enforcers, it suggests that the country is at last ready to grapple with its past.


Although German Democratic Republic never matched the brutality of its Soviet sponsor, it was, as the film reminds us, the USSR’s equal in inflicting psychological horror on its citizenry. The point is unforgettably conveyed in the film’s opening. The year, with a nod to Orwell, is 1984 and the lead character, Stasi Captain Georg Wiesler (brilliantly played by East German actor Ulrich Mühe), is instructing a class of prospective Stasi interrogators in the finer points of their craft.


Wiesler plays the class a tape-recorded interview that has him interrogating a young wretch who has fallen into the Stasi’s clutches. Robbed of sleep, his nerves shot, visibly broken, he is ready to confess to anything. When the desperate man protests his innocence, Wiesler icily retorts that the very thought that the East German system is capable of imprisoning people without cause “alone deserves imprisonment.” It’s a pitch-perfect example of the Stasi’s unanswerable logic, in which the ends of all conversations and interrogations have been selected in advance. Taking in this lesson in individual destruction, a student in Wiesler’s class ventures that it is “inhuman.” Wiesler studiously makes a note by the student’s name. We mustn’t have anyone questioning the Stasi’s tactics.


On the evidence of this initial encounter, Wiesler is the prototypical Stasi apparatchik: pitiless in his outlook, mechanical in his methods, heartlessly immune to the suffering of his victims. As soon becomes evident, however, Wiesler is no ordinary henchman.


At one level, he believes that he is defending socialism against his internal enemies, all in keeping with Stasi’s motto of being “the sword and shield” of the East German state. But this illusion becomes increasingly difficult to sustain when he is tasked by a Stasi boss, the lumbering Bruno Hempf (a powerfully repugnant Thomas Thieme), to monitor the East German playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his live-in girlfriend, the striking but tormented actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).


A faithful communist, Wiesler eagerly accepts the mission. Still, he knows something is amiss. For one thing, Dreyman, an apolitical writer, has not yet challenged the regime. Indeed, a party functionary approvingly notes the he is “the only non-subversive writer we have” -- a glowing review by official standards. Something about the libidinous glances that Hempf casts in Sieland’s direction, moreover, suggests that the security of socialism is not uppermost in his mind. Clearly, Wiesler is not being asked to find incriminating evidence but to manufacture it. Less appealingly, he is serving not the state, but Hempf’s sexual appetite.


Duty calls, however, and Wiesler sets about the task of spying on the couple with an efficiency that has elevated him to the ranks of the Stasi elite. When a next-door neighbor accidentally happens upon the Stasi comprehensively bugging their apartment, Wiesler growls: “One word of this and Masha loses her place at the university.” Message received: the Stasi knows all, controls all.


Recording devices in place, Wiesler spends entire nights in an attic listening to and transcribing the couple’s every spoken word and audible gesture, compiling a detailed soundtrack of their lives; not even the smallest detail escapes his notice. What he finds is two people passionately devoted to their art, and to each other. To most, this would be unremarkable. To Wiesler, a creature of the colorless, passionless world of the Stasi -- the closest thing Wiesler knows to love is a cronish prostitute who services the Stasi officers -- it comes as a revelation.


It is an absorbing introduction to one of the film’s underlying themes: the subversive nature of art. For the communist regime, art is politics by other means. Party commissars prefer to think of artists as the “engineers of the soul of mankind,” as Hempf puts it in a lame attempt at aesthetic criticism, a thoroughly philistine notion that the film attributes to Stalin. (In fact, it is a coinage of the loathsome Maxim Gorky.)


Earlier in his career, Wiesler might have agreed with the judgment. But his surveillance has revealed to him the possibility that art -- music, literature, theater -- transcends politics. Swiping a copy of Bertold Brecht’s poems from Dreyman’s apartment, Wiesler experiences for the first time in his life what it is to savor the written word. In time, he begins to omit key details of his surveillance, before turning it into fiction altogether. The censor has become the artist.


Considering the fervor of Wiesler’s party loyalty at the start of the film, such a dramatic transformation -- the core of this film -- seems highly implausible. It is thus one of the film’s great strengths that it manages to convey it credibly. Little by little, Wiesler dissents. In one scene, Wiesler is confronted in an elevator by a tussle-headed tyke wondering whether he is a “Stasi.” Do you even know what the Stasi is? the captain asks. In perfect innocence, the child replies -- citing his father as the authority -- that the Stasi are the bad men who put innocent people in jail. Sensing potential subversion, Wiesler begins, “What is the name of your…” Then, to his apparent surprise, he cuts himself short. Another crack has formed in his ideological edifice.


In their search for cinematic parallels, some critics have likened The Lives of Others to Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster homage to German industrialist Oskar Schindler, the “righteous gentile” who saved, depending on which figures are consulted, several hundred or over a thousand Jews from the Nazi death camps.


Insofar as both locate films locate their unlikely heroes at the heart of tyranny and terror, the comparison has a superficial plausibility. Yet it does an injustice to The Lives of Others, which, thanks to the more subtle vision of its young director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is blessedly free of the heavy-handed sentimentality that reduces Spielberg’s work to exhausting exercises in moral exhibitionism. It does not exaggerate von Donnersmarck’s achievement to say that he makes Spielberg’s point much more successfully, reminding the viewer that the grip of ideology is breakable; that bad men are capable of doing good; and that even a soulless dictatorship cannot expunge the nobler impulses of human nature. If this is how East Germany will be remembered, so much the better. 


Does that mean that preceding films have served no purpose? Interestingly, Ulrich Mühe, the film’s star, doesn’t think so. In a recent interview with a German arts magazine, he observed that to fully capture the essence of the communist tyranny, German filmmaking has had to undergo a creative evolution:


            Films like Goodbye Lenin! were important. Perhaps it is first of all necessary to approach the past with comedy, [since] laughing helps in the processing. That smoothed the way for earnest and emotional films. Now people can look back once again in order to really take leave of the GDR. Without sorrow and without nostalgia. It has taken 17 years to approach the subject of East Germany with earnestness.


To which one can only add: It has been worth the wait.


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Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com

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