Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A serious anti-Communist film

Before I turn my attention to other matters, here is another and much more serious anti-Communist film, probably the best film about East Germany, the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the system. I am, of course, talking about Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others), directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, which unexpectedly won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2007.

This was unexpected for two reasons: the film was really very good in every way and it was anti-Communist, not an ideological position Hollywood takes these days. As I wrote at the time:
It was noted that Cate Blanchett seemed utterly stunned when she handed over the prize. This was …. Sshhh …. Whisper who dares …. An anti-Communist film.
Sadly, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has not lived up to expectations since then, having made one rather feeble film but been feted all over the world and described as highly influential for reasons that escape me. Don't you have to have a sizeable body of work before you can be called influential? Someone like Alfred Hitchcock for instance? Or produce at least one film like Citizen Kane that has had an enormous impact on other directors?

Be that as it may, The Lives of Others is an excellent film and tells a very good story of the committed Stasi officer who begins to have doubts, of the mildly but ever more strongly dissident writers and journalists, of the political and moral corruption of the East German society and other matters.

Two points are worth noting. One is that there is no particular indication in the film that either the playwright under observation, Georg Dreyman or his partner, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland are particularly brilliant artists. In fact, that one scene from Dreyman's play, performed first in a sub-Brechtian and then in a post-modernist style, indicates something less than Shakespearian talent. But that is irrelevant. Freedom is for all or should be, not just for the brilliant ones.

The second point is rather ironic and does not seem to have been picked up by reviewers or commentators. At various points Hauptman Gerd Wiesler, the hero or anti-hero of the film, decides to intervene to help the couple under his surveillance. Each intervention ends disastrously for the couple though neither Wiesler nor anyone else in the film realizes that.

Incidentally, Ulrich Mühe, who died far too young soon after the film's release and the Oscar, had been an ant-Communist activist in East Germany and had been under surveillance. He had found out that his then wife, the actress Jenny Gröllmann, a Stasi informant, as it turned out, reported on him. She denied it and there was a certain amount of feeling in Germany at the time that he ought not to  have written or spoken about it. So far as I know the truth of it all remains murky.

Back to the film. It is hard to know what to put up as there are no amusing scenes or dance routines. So I thought I would show the beginning and the end. The film starts with Wiesler interrogating a prisoner who is accused of aiding and abetting his neighbour's escape to the West. A recording of the interrogation is also used in a lecture to Stasi recruits, at least one of whom shows regrettable bourgeois tendencies of mercy and is marked as unreliable.

The ending of the film is rather different and quite moving. Georg Dreyman who had no idea that he was under surveillance finds it out from a former East German Minister. He goes away to read his files (a huge pile of them, which elicits admiration from the archivist) and realizes that certain things did not happen the way he had always believed.

A film that is very well worth seeing.


  1. Well, there was one scene that was I thought was quite funny (in a sort of Teutonic way....but still):

    The Honecker joke


  2. It was funny, I agree. In a sort of Communist joke way, especially once one realizes that the lad who tells the joke is packed off to the Stasi insider equivalent of the salt mines where Wiesler ends up eventually. I also loked the scene when they hear on the radio intercept that the Berlin Wall has been breached. Sadly, not on Youtube.