Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Lives of Others directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
Germany (German), 2006
137 min, thriller, drama, spy, historical
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

In 1980s East Germany, a hardened member of the secret police (Stasi) is assigned to spy upon a playwright and his actress girlfriend. As he listens in on the intimacies of their lives, he begins to have doubts about the actions of his government. Is he on the verge of become a traitor, or worse - a good man? 

Big Brother, Surveillance, and the State

The East German state is almost a looming, physical presence in this film. It is present in the surveillance and interrogations, the jokes, the architecture. As you watch, you can feel the suffocation of living under these conditions.

But what is the state, really? Is it just the government? No, because it is also the people who make up the government.

As the main character notes, the people in the government do not always follow the principles of the government. Although the government is communist in name, the people act according to their own interests. The investigation's ulterior motive (getting rid of a minister's rival in love) is a testament to the way power corrupts, even in an ostensibly equal society.

Who are these artists fighting against? It is difficult to confront such a nebulous entity as the state, upon inspection, reveals itself to be.

Becoming part of the lives of others

The most beautiful part of this movie is how the Stasi officer gradually comes to sympathize with the people he is monitoring. Although they don't know it, he becomes their friend. 

At the same time, you can see his world gradually opening up. He has lived alone in his little apartment for who-knows-how-long, with no friends outside of his cohort in the Stasi. He has not had any personal relationships. But now he finds himself drawn outside of his little circle, impelled to do things that he would not otherwise have done. He wants to experience some of the good things in life, like sex or literature. And he finally decides to act on these better intentions, regardless of the consequences.

The moral of the story: people can change. If they are exposed to beautiful things, they can change for the better. In my view, that is the most powerful message you can send to people.

Further Reading: 

Interview with Florian Henckel von Donnersmark about the film
"East German Snitching Went Far Beyond the Stasi" by Peter Wensierski (Speigel Online)
"Spy Camp: Photos From East Germany's Secret Intelligence Files" by Jeremy Lybarger (Mother Jones)
"Panopticon Fatigue – Life, Sex and Death under the East German Stasi" by Robbie Martin

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