Das Leben Des Anderen (The Lives of Others)
Photo from "Das Leben der Anderen", © 2006, Sony Pictures Classics
I got the chance this weekend to see the movie that won the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar for 2006 — Das Leben des Anderen (The Lives of Others).
It’s a pretty goddamned outstanding film. You should see it. (To whet your appetite, here’s the trailer.)
The story takes place in East Germany in 1984-85 — a period when it still seemed that the Communist government would last forever. The protagonist, Captain Gert Weisler (played by Ulrich Mühe) is a gray little man who makes his living spying on his fellow citizens for the Stasi — East Germany’s notorious secret police.
Stasi agents were so pervasive in East German society that they kept files on more than a third of the entire population of the country. Hundreds of thousands of citizens were used as informers — either willingly, or through coercion. It was perhaps the most extensive program of internal surveillance anywhere in the world at the time.
The result was a kind of culture of paranoia, where everybody assumed that the Stasi was listening to every word they said. Even things you said behind your own doors — even things whispered across pillows to your lover. Who knew if the Stasi had bugged your apartment? Who knew if the Stasi had threatened to send your lover’s father off to prison if she didn’t inform on you?
Captain Weisler is a cog in the machinery of the surveillance state. And one day, he gets a new assignment — to monitor a playwright, and the playwright’s lover, to discover if they are engaged in any "subversive" activities. There’s no reason to doubt the playwright’s loyalty — he never criticizes the state, and his work stays within the Communist Party line. But someone in the government has a grudge against him, and in East Germany, that was enough.
So Weisler bugs their apartment and starts listening. But what he hears isn’t what he was expecting to hear. And the more he hears, the more he finds himself wondering if he should be listening in the first place, and if he should be doing anything to help the playwright as the Stasi’s net closes slowly around him.
It’s fascinating to watch Germans come to terms with the legacy of the Communist state. In some ways, Das Leben der Anderen can be read as a kind of rebuttal to another German film, 2003’s Good Bye Lenin! That film was actually a comedy — in it, a woman in East Berlin falls into a coma before the Berlin Wall falls, and comes out of it afterwards. When she comes to, the doctors warn her son that any sudden shocks might kill her. So, naturally enough, her son and his friends simply fail to tell her that the government has changed; and then they find themselves going to more and more absurd lengths to keep the fiction alive.
Good Bye Lenin! is a funny movie. But it also embodies a certain strain of nostalgia that can be found among some Germans who lived under the Communist regime. Sure, they argue, life was tough, and the government listened to everything you said, and people disappeared off the street for daring to criticize — but you were also guaranteed a job, and health care, and security. In the new capitalist economy, you have to fight every day to win those things, and to keep them. And that fight can be exhausting, especially if you didn’t grow up with it.
Das Leben des Anderen is a bracing rebuke of that nostalgia. When you see the surveillance state in action, it’s hard to believe that any amount of security is worth the price they paid. And as our own state creeps ever closer towards becoming a surveillance state, that’s worth remembering.