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The Lives of Others

Posted by Thomas Nephew on March 26th, 2007

I saw the Oscar-winning German movie “The Lives of Others” yesterday, about the surveillance of a fictitious playwright Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch) by East German “Stasi” operative Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe).

The movie — written and directed by relative newcomer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — succeeds completely in immersing its audience in the fear and omnipresence of the East German surveillance state. The infamous “Stasi” — “Ministerium für Staatssicherheit,” or department of state security — was ruthless, efficient, and perhaps above all else huge, with an estimated 91,000 employees by 1989 — and an additional 100,000 informers on its rolls. Conceiving itself as the “sword and shield” of the state, the Stasi relied on intensive surveillance, lengthy interrogations, secret imprisonments, and that vast network of informants — called “inoffizielle Mitarbeiter” or “IM”: unofficial co-workers — to suppress and deter political opposition.

Von Donnersmarck brings a humanistic sensibility to the story; indeed, he says the germ of the movie is not what those who’ve seen the movie might have expected. Instead, it’s the playwright’s moody, sad performance of a lovely piano piece on hearing of the death of a good friend — with the Stasi agent listening in via bugs and electronic equipment. Turning to his girlfriend, the man asks, Could someone listening to such music — really listening — really be a bad person? That in turn was inspired by a story about Lenin related by Maxim Gorky; Lenin, said Gorky, once confessed that he was no longer willing to listen to Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” or he’d just be telling people loving banalities and stroking their heads, instead of pitilessly striking those heads to complete his revolution. Von Donnersmarck resolved to, in effect, force Lenin — in the form of Stasi agent Wiesler — to really listen to that music.

One might argue that’s nice, but potentially also a weakness of the story. Would a top East German security agent really respond to the pathos of a piano piece quite the way Wiesler does? And so what if just one did?

Yet Von Donnersmarck’s script and Mühe’s acting at least make it plausible — a lonely man, rather idealistic in his own way, gradually realizes he may have less in common with his bosses than with his surveillance targets. And I thought it was interesting to notice that Agent Wiesler — in his capacity as an official of the surveillance state, to be sure — is in fact strangely, breathtakingly free to observe, to draw his own conclusions, and then to act on them as he sees fit. Freedom’s diminishment as a whole is achieved, in part, by giving people like Wiesler greater freedoms and greater powers — powers that are generally abused as intended, but perhaps sometimes, very rarely, used differently as well. Freedom doesn’t vanish completely — it shrinks to the size of a headset.

Ulrich Mühe — an East German actor who was himself surveilled, with his wife among the informants — was interviewed for the German movie web site, and asked how he prepared himself for the movie. His answer: “I remembered.” When asked whether the film succeeded in depicting an authentic picture of life in East Germany, Mühe replied:

In my opinion, absolutely. Althought the story is fictional, the film … was able to evoke the climate of repression very exactly (meaning above all without exaggeration). Dictatorship feels like that.

My point with the news items at the top of this post is not to claim the United States is the same as East Germany, but to suggest that we’re not different enough any more to suit me. (True, we have nowhere near the number of political informers in the US that East Germany could “boast” of, but we make up for that with any number of people who excuse and defend steps towards a surveillance state and away from liberty — unofficial state security co-workers indeed.)

Once the Stasi was up and running, it was too late for East Germans to do more than grouse about it — if they dared even do that. At the risk of sounding like Chicken Little or Cassandra, it’s better to nip “Stasi”s in the bud — restrict surveillance to the minimum necessary, prevent fishing expeditions or political abuse, insist on strict judicial and legislative oversight, resist expansions of state surveillance powers. In other words, we must remind ourselves that it is people, not governments, who are endowed with unalienable rights, and that governments are instituted merely to secure those rights — not to suspend, abrogate, or diminish them.

=====
NOTES: Damian TPoD (“Danger West”) was also impressed with the movie and points to a “Fresh Air” interview with director Von Donnersmarck on NPR; this is where I learned some of the background to the movie and about Mühe. For a couple of other worthwhile reviews of the movie see Roger Ebert and Anthony Lane.
EDIT, 3/26: “official” for “functionary,” fifth paragraph.

UPDATES, 3/27: This post is included in a NYTimes “EmpireZone” blog roundup of blog responses to the Dwyer “City Police Spied Broadly…” article. Unofficial — at least, so I assume — state security co-workers commenting there say it’s not so bad that police spied on demonstrators. (Ahead of a ruling party conference.) Also, in a second post Damian TPoD discusses the post reunification part of the movie — which Von Donnersmarck had to argue to keep.
UPDATE, 5/15: Huh. Kevin Drum can’t figure out why Wiesler might have protected his surveillance targets: “There was simply no serious motivation provided for this transformation. It was almost as if the writer figured he didn’t really need to bother.” I respond in comments.

4 Responses to “The Lives of Others”

  1. janinsanfran Says:

    “we’re not different enough any more to suit me.”
    I like that. It catches the nuance of the situation very well.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks — but I should probably credit Israeli historian Avi Schlaim (Shlaim?) with the Ur-quote of that phrase. Schlaim wrote, re Israeli-Palestinian relations: “The issue isn’t whether or not we’re the same as Nazis, it’s whether we’re different enough.” (Via Bradford Plumer, who got it from Armando at DailyKos.)

  3. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » The New Stasiland Bulletin (Vol 1, Issue 2) Says:

    [...] refers to the East German security agency or “Stasi”; see my post “The Lives of Others” for more about it, with the bullet entries at the beginning of that post comprising Vol 1, Issue 1 [...]

  4. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » The New Stasiland Bulletin (Vol 1, Issue 3) Says:

    [...] refers to the East German security agency or “Stasi”; see my post “The Lives of Others” for more about it. In its English usage, “Stasiland” was coined (as far as I know) by [...]

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