Sunday, May 20, 2007

On the Surveillance State: Ash reviews The Lives of Others

In an essay The Stasi on Our Minds in the May 31 New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash reviews the Oscar-winning German film The Lives of Others, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Das Leben der anderen: Filmbuch by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck Frankfurt: Suhrkamp).

I just happened to see this devastating film about surveillance in communist East Germany last night. Some will be attracted to it out of an interest in a narrative of the impact of a surveillance state on the lives of its citizens. It is also simply a superbly crafted film.

Warning: Ash's review discloses the way the film turns out, down to its very last line. This blog excerpt includes only a partial plot description, and does not give away the ending. I recommend both the film and the review most highly. Readers might prefer to see the film first, and then read Ash's full essay.

Ash writes:
One of Germany's most singular achievements is to have associated itself so intimately in the world's imagination with the darkest evils of the two worst political systems of the most murderous century in human history. The words "Nazi," "SS," and "Auschwitz" are already global synonyms for the deepest inhumanity of fascism. Now the word "Stasi" is becoming a default global synonym for the secret police terrors of communism. The worldwide success of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's deservedly Oscar- winning film The Lives of Others will strengthen that second link, building as it does on the preprogramming of our imaginations by the first. Nazi, Stasi: Germany's festering half-rhyme.
Ash, it turns out, has a Stasi file himself, having lived in East Berlin in the 1970s. He tells the story of his Stasi surveillance in his book The File. Because of this experience, he writes,
It was therefore with particular interest that I recently sat down to watch The Lives of Others, this already celebrated film about the Stasi, made by a West German director who was just sixteen when the Berlin Wall came down. Set in the Orwellian year of 1984, it shows a dedicated Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler, conducting a full-scale surveillance operation on a playwright in good standing with the regime, Georg Dreyman, and his beautiful, highly strung actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland. As the case progresses, we see the Stasi captain becoming disillusioned with his task. He realizes that the whole operation has been set up simply to allow the culture minister, who is exploiting his position to extract sexual favors from the lovely Christa, to get his playwright rival out of his way. "Was it for this we joined up?" Wiesler asks his cynical superior, Colonel Anton Grubitz.

At the same time, he becomes curiously enchanted with what he hears through his headphones, connected to the bugs concealed behind the wallpaper of the playwright's apartment: that rich world of literature, music, friendship, and tender sex, so different from his own desiccated, solitary life in a dreary tower-block, punctuated only by brief, mechanical relief between the outsize mutton thighs of a Stasi-commissioned prostitute. In his snooper's hideaway in the attic of the apartment building, Wiesler sits transfixed by Dreyman's rendition of a piano piece called "The Sonata of the Good Man"—a birthday present to the playwright from a dissident theater director who, banned by the culture minister from pursuing his vocation, subsequently commits suicide. Violating all the rules that he himself teaches at the Stasi's own university, the secret watcher slips into the apartment and steals a volume of poems by Bertolt Brecht. Then we see him lying on a sofa, entranced by one of Brecht's more elegiac verses.
While Ash finds some inaccuracies in the film's portrayal of East Germany, he emphasizes, "the point is that this is a movie. It uses the syntax and conventions of Hollywood to convey to the widest possible audience some part of the truth about life under the Stasi, and the larger truths that experience revealed about human nature. It mixes historical fact...with the ingredients of a fast-paced thriller and love story."

American viewers might come away from the film reflecting on the nature of a surveillance state, and the way its corrupting influences can seep into even the private corners of individual lives. Ash turns instead to a reflection on Germany, and on the relationship between a history of evil and a contemporary embrace of liberty. It is reminiscent, perhaps, of Kim Scheppele's idea that countries have sometimes constituted themselves through constitutional reforms to depart from a "regime of horror." Here is Ash:
The Germany in which this film was produced, in the early years of the twenty-first century, is one of the most free and civilized countries on earth. In this Germany, human rights and civil liberties are today more jealously and effectively protected than (it pains me to say) in traditional homelands of liberty such as Britain and the United States. In this good land, the professionalism of its historians, the investigative skills of its journalists, the seriousness of its parliamentarians, the generosity of its funders, the idealism of its priests and moralists, the creative genius of its writers, and, yes, the brilliance of its filmmakers have all combined to cement in the world's imagination the most indelible association of Germany with evil. Yet without these efforts, Germany would never have become such a good land. In all the annals of human culture, has there ever been a more paradoxical achievement?
For the full essay (recommended -- especially after seeing the film), click here.