Past and present
A film illuminates communism’s horrors and aftermath
IF YOU ever lived in the grim communist prison camp that called itself the German Democratic Republic, or have friends or family who did, it is easy to flinch at “The Lives of Others”, a film that portrays the vile bullies and murderers of the Stasi secret police in a stylised and melodramatic way.
The plot verges on the preposterous. A brutal Stasi officer is so moved by his victims’ loving tenderness and cultivated habits that he switches sides. That is about as plausible (and tasteful) as a film about Auschwitz in which a camp guard falls in love with an inmate: theoretically possible, but a jarring note of sentimentality in a story that should break hearts, not warm them.
But leave that and other flourishes of artistic licence (or carelessness) on one side. Films are not made to suit the sensibilities only of those soured or sensitised by first-hand experience. “The Lives of Others” does not claim to be a documentary, but a work of fiction. If the price of spreading the truth is to paint in bright colours with bold outlines, that is probably worth paying. Those whose curiosity is stimulated will find plenty of factual material elsewhere.
Overall, the film is a magnificent reminder to those, particularly in the West, who doubt the real horror of the communist secret-police state. Most people under 40 remember no Soviet leader before Mikhail Gorbachev; the gulag is something in history books. For these, and the warm-hearted and soft-headed people of all ages who think that communism probably wasn’t all that bad, the film may be the first time they have experienced even a frisson of what it was really like. (When your columnist saw the film, it was preceded by an advertisement for Stolichnaya vodka. Among the totalitarian kitsch it featured was an image of the mass murderer Lenin, whom the ad described as a “visionary”.)
For a start, the film shows the people who ran communist countries in their true colours. Far from building socialism with the bricks of altruism and the mortar of discipline, they were disgusting hypocrites: greedy, brutal and lecherous. A poisonous mixture of deceit and fear fuelled the system. Even for the brave, it was dreadfully difficult to stay clean. The film shows all that well.
Reflecting on the past
The biggest lesson, though, is not about the beastliness of the past, but Germany’s success in dealing with it. The film ends with the Stasi broken and contemptible; its files are open, its officers nowhere near public life. For all the other failures in eastern Germany, this at least has been a triumph. Compare that with its counterparts elsewhere. Unreformed intelligence services still rule the roost in Bulgaria and Romania; scandals surround their doings in the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania. In Russia, they run the country.
In its approach to communist-era spies and their bosses, most of eastern Europe resembles Germany in the 1950s and early 1960s. Economic growth is terrific. Never mind about the morality and background of those running the country. Denazification is over and done with.
Such complacency about the past lasts only until young people start asking questions. Just as the youth movements of 1968 challenged both the authoritarian bureaucratic ways of governments in Germany and France and the festering shame of wartime collaboration, a new generation of east European youngsters may finish the job that their parents botched in 1989. “What exactly did Dad do under communism?” is a highly subversive question. It needs to be asked, widely and often. If “The Lives of Others” doesn’t spark that discussion in former communist countries, sooner or later something else will.