The Lives of Others - review

The Lives of Others

Bogus history, liberal wish-fulfilment, bourgeois triumphalism – no wonder ‘The Lives of Others’ won an Oscar, reckons Tom Jennings

Rehabilitating Big Brother

[film review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 12, June 2007; plus reader’s response and author’s reply]

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others has been touted as a corrective to a wave of fond media memories of the GDR communist dictatorship, which collapsed in 1989 along with the Berlin Wall. So, rather than this ‘Ostalgie’ (as in 2003’s internationally successful comedy Good Bye, Lenin) downplaying the ubiquitous, miserable repression prevalent in the East, writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut goes to considerable lengths to realistically portray the paranoia, privation and social poison and petrification surrounding citizens thanks largely to the notoriously vicious and omnipotent secret police, the Stasi – who Simon Wiesenthal famously described as worse than the Nazis in their implacable domestic menace. Meticulous design, staging and scripting and static, desaturated cinematography scrupulously convey the drably cramped mid-1980s ambience within whose confines corrupt Party bosses and evangelistic apparatchiks spy on, mess with and casually wreck the lives of anyone unfortunate enough to attract their malevolent attention – with the excellent cast capped by a magnificent central performance from Ulrich Mühe as Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler.

A diligent, highly-efficient and treasured investigator, interrogator and enforcer, Wiesler’s archetypally arid authoritarian character (complete with empty personal life) gradually decomposes after being assigned to dig dirt on comfortably loyal playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), whose actress girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck, as little more than a femme fatale plot device) is suborned into betraying him by Wiesler’s lascivious lizard of a boss – Dreyman himself only acting against the regime by whistle-blowing in a West Berlin newspaper when a friend commits suicide after years of harassment. Wiesler’s growing conscience, helped by close proximity hidden in the attic to Dreyman et al’s spontaneity, passion and freethinking (not to mention lust for Christa-Maria) leads him to conceal evidence, and when discovered he is stripped of his position and sent to steam open mail. In the epilogue after reunification, Dreyman discovers the extent of the surveillance he suffered and realises Wiesler’s sacrifice. The latter, now working as a postman, later stumbles across Dreyman’s new book which is dedicated to him.

This affecting and convincing tale of psychological transformation has attracted huge audiences and acclaim, being judged the best foreign language film at the 2006 Academy Awards. However, widespread unease about the film’s political and historical accuracy is pooh-poohed by von Donnersmarck as a few simpletons engaged in irrelevant and/or baseless nit-picking – citing the ‘authorities’ consulted in making it while conveniently ignoring all those who objected. Ironically, such peremptory dismissals bear an uncanny resemblance to the smear tactics usually accompanying intelligence agencies’ more sinister and unsavoury practices – but then there’s no rule against arrogant pricks making good art, and The Lives of Others is undoubtedly an impressive, powerful effort. But it is a bit rich coming from an aristocratic West German whose feelgood agenda coincidentally resonates with an increasingly assertive Stasi apologism. It also pre-empts meaningful comparisons with both the contemporaneous West German ‘Berufsverbot’ (covert government blacklisting where many thousands were deemed politically unfit for employment) and the abuse of today’s surveillance technology in the entrenchment of power which is already apparent even before the hard-, soft- and liveware is fully onstream.
The focus on lone heroic resistance by the servants of power once humanistic sympathy for creative expression is awakened implies that only individual integrity, overcoming all odds, can be the source of social salvation. Obviously, agents of evil seeing the light is to be welcomed, but here it specifically diverts emphasis from the inexorable oppression of a bureaucratic system of control which allows little, if any, space for autonomy among functionaries. The logic of the Stasi structure was to fragment operational tasks – much like any modern corporate fascism – so that internal monitoring prevented exactly the kind of rogue activity which enables our hero to find a moral centre. Thus there is no record of any Stasi man ever behaving like this (and those caught ‘betraying’ the organisation faced execution, not demotion). Many informers filed innocuously convincing fictions, but the circular criteria by which citizens were defined as ‘suspect’ – obsessively elaborated by administrators as the scale of intrusion accelerated along with the proportion of the population actively collaborating – tended to render each item of irrelevant data further evidence justifying ruthless persecution. This would be a central concern in any exploration of the close relevance of Stalinist repression to today’s more sophisticated surveillance societies – but here we merely have stereotypically bad apples up the hierarchy who cause the problems.

Meanwhile former Stasi employees now organise openly and aggressively to rescue personal and collective reputations, vilifying and intimidating as liars and ‘ordinary criminals’ those victims, dissidents and opponents who attempt genuine debate about the present ramifications of this period of recent history. This campaign has considerable political clout yet never acknowledges culpability among those ‘just following orders’ – let alone the appalling suffering caused over four decades and despite overwhelming proof from archives now in the public domain. The film surely offers a chilling indictment of East Germany’s real-life Orwell-meets-Kafka nightmare, but its final expression of gratitude to one sad nasty Stasi bastard for his decency following an unlikely redemption is as nauseating as it is disingenuous.* It trivialises von Donnersmarck’s pretensions towards universal human values almost as much as the narcissistic vanity of his pampered celebrities, whose sublime visions are supposed to inspire us poor grunts to aspire to transcend our pathetic stations in life. The Lives of Others thus learns nothing from a century of political history and makes no contribution to struggles against tyranny. On the contrary, such age-old high-handed cultural conservatism habitually and happily colludes with the marginalisation of those with the temerity to question the entire edifice of official claims to ‘civilisation’ – consequently leaving the mechanisms and conceptual frameworks of totalitarianism completely intact for future generations of control freaks to exploit.

* explained with great clarity by Anna Funder in ‘Eyes Without a Face’, Sight & Sound, May 2007. See also my essay review of a far more subtle and interesting surveillance thriller, the Glasgow-set Red Road, in ‘Closed Circuit Tunnel Vision’, Variant 29.

[for more essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see:]
www.variant.org.uk
www.starandshadow.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

The Lives of Others

[commentary by Brian Bamford, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 14, July 2007]

Tom Jennings’ fascinating review of the Oscar winning film The Lives of Others (June 16th) is too systematic and consequently misses a vital point. The point is that the Stasi secret police agent Gerd Wiesler may be of an “arid authoritarian character” who is “one sad nasty bastard”, but the film shows him to be a sincere bastard. Though Mr Jennings may well be a postmodernist to whom sincerity and good faith are not relevant it seems to me in terms of this film and perhaps our understanding of totalitarian regimes it is very important.

It is clear from the beginning that Stasi Captain Wiesler believes in the virtue of what he is doing as a means of promoting ‘socialism’ and protecting it from what Jennings might call “arrogant pricks [like, perhaps in the film, Georg Dreyman] making good art”. This is contrasted with the attitude of Wiesler’s bosses (both in the Stasi and East German Party) who lack his sincerity. As Jennings suggests this film is a portrayal of corruption. By corruption here I mean betrayal of the ideals of state socialism, and the film shows how members of the apparatus betray the ideals of state socialism in the interests of career advancement and personal gratification.

Wiesler comes to be aware of the bad faith of his superiors and is transformed in the course of a just over two hour film in much the same way as the hero in Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom on the Spanish Civil War had his mind changed by events and he ripped up his communist party card. This is difficult to portray because as Bertold Brecht pointed out people don’t change at that rate in real life.

Jennings says “there is no record of any Stasi men ever behaving like this [Gerd Wiesler]” and that his “unlikely redemption is as nauseating as it is disingenuous”. Interestingly those anarchist critics of last year’s Spanish film Salvador Puig Antich, the young anarchist executed by garrotte in the 1970s, also questioned the authenticity of his being befriended by a prison warder in one of Franco’s jails. Yet we know that George Orwell, when a member of the then illegalised POUM on the run from communist authorities in Barcelona in 1937, was met with praise and a handshake when he confessed his ‘illegal’ allegiance to a senior official (see Homage to Catalonia). Similarly recently a former senior manager, Alan Wainwright from Mold in Wales, has exposed the blacklist operating in the British building trade on a blog on the internet and the Department of Trade & Industry has just begun an inquiry into it. Moreover, Stuart Christie, in his latest autobiography Granny made me an Anarchist, writes of 1975 when he and his companera were still living in Wimbledon and a police inspector called and “advised me that ‘a number of people’ were extremely annoyed” and “he recommended that I would be well advised to get out of town …” Strange things do happen, and under any system of government it is reasonable to believe that deviance is possible within the hierarchy, even among the Prussians of East Germany.

The Afterlives of Others

[commentary by Tom Jennings, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 16, August 2007]

Brian Bamford (14th July) is quite right – my review of The Lives of Others (16th June) glossed over the “sincerity and good faith” of its East German state intelligence goon betraying his masters. After all, the film’s mainstream hype gushed relentlessly along those lines – praising its ‘moral’ about the civilising redemptiveness of High Art soothing the savage beast, but hardly hinting at the questions I raised. And OK, “sad nasty Stasi bastard” was harsh – but, hey, Brian, can I get some poetic license, or is that too “postmodernist” for you? Besides, reaching Captain will have been no picnic – he was so good at torture, he taught courses for the lower orders. Sticks in the craw somewhat, applauding his decency, no? Specially as, if his superiors had been Stalinist zealots with integrity (rather than slime) he would probably have carried on wrecking lives regardless …
Even then, I described Wiesler’s transformation as “affecting and convincing” – not, as Brian claims, “nauseating [and] disingenuous”. That was my reaction to the film’s final expression of gratitude to him for letting Dreyman off the hook and leaving his privileges intact. As symbolic resolution to the whole state socialist episode, this reeks of fantasy and false closure rather than ‘truth and reconciliation’ – with psychological disavowal, philosophical sophistry and historical amnesia allowing the writer/director to pronounce from his own elevated social status while entirely overlooking the vast majority of ordinary folk who suffered most (and still do in the continuing debacle after the West’s ‘victory’). Perhaps, moreover, this reflects the ‘political unconscious’ of the comfortable classes in general.

Still, the argument that high-ranking whistleblowers and turncoats may develop benign motives is well taken – plus yer average footsoldiers doubtless have qualms too. Yet there is no record of Stasi officers actively sabotaging investigations (complaining more or less publicly years later is another matter; and anyway the records can’t necessarily be trusted!) – at least with Schindler’s List there was a documented historical Schindler. But the main point, surely, is that the film not only invites identification with the powerful, but further implies that change hinges entirely on their vicissitudes – a staple propaganda ploy of Hollywood and its pale imitations (whereas organised grass-roots collective dissidence or struggle scarcely registers – and when it does, individual heroes usually pull the strings there too). In general, my reviews seek neither to be authoritative nor objective (and could never be “systematic” in covering all the angles) – here merely exposing the avalanche of bourgeois mystification otherwise plaguing the media public sphere.