Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Lives of Others (review)


Past and present

Jun 14th 2007

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.


Emil Perhinschi said...

<“What exactly did Dad do under communism?” is a highly subversive question. It needs to be asked, widely and often.>

that's not necessary ... everybody knows what was "Dad" doing under Communism, the same way they know what was "Granddad" doing under "Fascism" and how was "Grand-granddad" faring during the Great War.

Yes, we are asking questions. The question most asked is "Aren't you tired of revolutions, purges, civil wars, exclusions and scapegoating ?".

Denazification was superficial in Western Europe for a reason: to give the 1968 youth a chance. Denazification was thorough in Central and Eastern Europe, and now we pay for it: the former Nazis (of various colors) can pretend to be "victims of Communism". Communist propaganda turned the incompetent thugs that they were into dark heroes able to inspire, and granddads that were not left to live their life in peaceful shame now bear the aura of the anti-communist martyrs and motivate their nephews to follow in what the nephews imagine were their footsteps.

We know who the intelligence service agents were, and who the profiteers of the Communism were. We see them each day, slashing at each others throats in Parliament, in the press or in the market . Still, we hope to live in peace with their children, so get your righteousness some place else. Let us have our chance at peace, and be certain that the people who deserve to be spit in the face are being spit in the face right now, and they feel it, and they know that only their willingness to keep this peace stays between them and the "decommunization labor camps".

Bryan said...

I expected Pan's Labyrinth to win an Oscar and was surprised to hear that this movie won - so I went to see it. For whatever historical liberties that it took, this film shed a huge light on East German communism for me. Before that, my only understanding of the topic was limited to me seeing the Berlin wall fall while in my pajamas as a child, or perhaps asking my parents why there were two Germanys at the Olympics.

Soviet kitsch and Che t-shirts don't look as trendy after seeing this movie.

mihkel said...

In general, I like the article very much and I totally disagree with the first comment. Questions need to be asked about the communist past, not let it go fade. I am constantly astounded by the atrocities/deportations, you name it, in the past and I am surprised how it might be possible for the people to think of just forgetting them in the name of fictional peace.

The totalitarian regimes don't go anywhere just because we want them to. When I see older people who were active under the communist regime, I can’t talk to them without wondering what they did in the past. I would find it quite impossible to forgive them if they did indeed something that’s in contrast with my moral norms and humanity, unlike the first commenter.

You could have conformed to the regime, stayed silent or fought back and suffered the consequences, but those who conformed, deserve no credit for their actions. Moreover, their actions should be investigated, to satisfy the need for justice.

Alas, I find the nostalgia for the SU, so common sometimes, truly ‘wrong’ to use the mildest of words.


zaxi said...

I thought your initial questioning of Stasi men changing sides was in surprisingly bad taste. There were numerous examples of informants working with dissidents throught the former USSR -- that is how much of the Moscow intelligiencia actually managed to survive at all in 70s and 80s. Some of them then fled to the West, others didn't survive, but many are remembered today.

Edward Lucas said...

A reader sent this by email

As you said in your review, for those of us too young to remember
East Germany as it was (I can't even remember the wall coming down) the film
provides a real chill. One moment that especially caught me was the scene
where the Stasi officer notices the neighbour watching the playwright's
house being bugged - without a moment's hesitation, he knows the woman's
name and her weak spots and is ruthlessly able to instantly exert power over
her. I think it's very good to be reminded of the all-encompassing terror of
totalitarianism at a time when liberal freedoms are largely taken for
granted in the west.

But on your larger point about plausibility, I found the movie rather
inspiring despite its unlikelihood. Through his engagement with the
playwright, the Stasi man is able to rediscover his humanity and even to
redeem himself, so the film is fundamentally optimistic about the survival
of the best of humanity even in the darkest environments. And what better
role-model can there be than a character who does the right thing despite
great personal risk? Surely that idealism - the will to do the right thing -
is part of what helped to bring down totalitarianism in Europe. From that
perspective, it might even be possible to read the entire film as a metaphor
for the stirrings of rebellion among a population cowed and deadened. The
end of the Communism in Europe was very inspiring, and the film catches some
of that optimism.

Plus, as you said, it's good to counter some of the *ostalgie* in the former
east with a bit of a reminder of what it was really like, and of what's gone
right since the *Mauer* came down.

BEING HAD said...

I have not seen this film (and probably won't get a chance to, all things considered), but I have had some reasonable experience living in Belarus which is pretty much filled with people who did live during the times of communism. Because I live here, I do know that those bricks of altruism and mortar of discipline were very much a part of things, and in fact had very, very much to do with why I decided to come here in the first place.

I also printed a longer comment about it on The STORY