Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Lives of Others

The film could have been shot in monochrome black and white, so bleak is the portrayal of Stalinist East Germany. It is a gut-wrenching expose of the secret police, the all powerful, all seeing Stasi. Set in 1984 it is pre-Gorbachov and the grip of the regime appears unrelenting.

The Stasi assembled a grisly state within a state – 97,000 employees and 173,000 informers in a country of 17 million. If part time informants are included some estimates make the ratio 1 per 6.5 of the population.

Playwright Georg Dreyman is tolerated and indulged by the Ministry of Culture, actress and girl friend Christa-Maria Sieland is also involved in a self-loathing affair with a powerful party official. To satisfy an internal power struggle they are put under surveillance. Georg’s attitude changes when an old friend, a former theatre director, commits suicide.

Party loyalist Gerd Weisler is chosen to lead the surveillance operation and a team of Stasi bug the flat and install hidden cameras. Weisler and a colleague are ensconced in the attic to monitor everything. Weisler is drawn towards Georg and Christa, contrasting his joyless existence with their rich cultural life and wide network of friends. There’s a poignant moment as a young child gets in the lift with him at his grim tower block, ‘You’re the Stasi, and we hate you because you lock people up.’ It takes an effort of will to suppress the force of habit and acquire the name of the child’s father.

At times the film overplays the harshness of life in East Germany, there is a danger of parody – the Carling lager advert with smoky factories and workers chained to the production line. Nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall there is high unemployment in the eastern states, and young people emigrate in their thousands. The former communist party the PDS attracts about 20% of the vote.

The opposite danger is Ostalgie – nostalgia for the GDR, which was evident in the film ‘Goodbye Lenin!’ The Stasi allowed no dissent the regime was run on the principle of, ‘you’re either with us or against us’. Fax machines, typewriters and duplicators were all licensed and restricted. Reprisals were extended to the children of dissidents who were denied university places and jobs. Many people didn’t want to leave the country but went into ‘internal emigration’, they knew the penalties for resistance but they with held any support for the regime.

During the dramatic fall of the GDR protestors occupied the Stasi offices and the full extent of the surveillance was revealed. People also discovered the painful truth about their betrayers – informants included, husbands, wives, lovers, sisters, brothers and friends.

The regime of surveillance and observation combined with the ridiculous targets inhibited initiative and innovation. It was recipe for stagnation, no one down the command structure wanted to make a decision, they waited for commands from the centre (shades of Ofsted?).

The justification for the Stasi was they were the ‘shield of the party’ in their 1930s mindset they were ‘protecting’ the people from fascism. Part of the propaganda effort was the endless films and documentaries about the Second World War. An excellent book about the period is Anna Funder’s ‘Stasiland’, it really shows the arbitrary manner in which people were caught in the net of the Stasi and there are some revealing interviews with former agents.

‘The Lives of Others’ is a reminder of what a monstrous police state the GDR was.


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