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Film Review: The Lives of Others

LIFE IN THE GDR?

The Lives of Others
Germany 2006, 137 minutes
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmark

REVIEW BY ALEX MILLER

This film, set in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1984, has as its central character Gerd Wiesler, a Captain in the infamous GDR State Security service (the “Stasi”). Wiesler is assigned the task of keeping a leading playwright, Georg Dryman, and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, under surveillance.

At the beginning of the film, Wiesler is an enthusiastic and idealistic member of the Stasi, but he begins to doubt the GDR regime and his own role in it, when his Stasi boss Lt-Col Anton Grubitz orders him to find evidence incriminating Dryman of anti-state activities. At the time the order is issued, Dryman is actually innocent of the charge, but Grubitz has himself been ordered to “find” evidence of Dryman’s guilt by a prominent government minister, who wants to get Dryman off the scene so that he can give vent to his lust for Dryman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria.

As the surveillance proceeds, Wiesler’s allegiance to the regime gradually evaporates, but I won’t spoil the film for future viewers by detailing the consequences of Wiesler’s moral conversion for the other characters in the film.

The acting is very good, and despite lasting over 2 hours, the film easily held my attention from start to finish. However, although the film is certainly worth seeing, to my mind it has two major flaws.

First, Dryman is too much of a saint for the tale to be believable. He is a brilliant playwright, good-looking and with immaculate aesthetic taste. At the start of the film he is even a loyal supporter of the GDR’s rulers. When he discovers that against her will Christa-Maria has been having sex with a government minister, he reacts calmly and perfectly rationally, and he is only forced into anti-government activity following much provocation, and despite being a personal friend of Margot Honecker, wife of the GDR president, Erich Honecker. Dryman is just too good to be true: a more complex character would have served the film’s moral narrative more effectively and more realistically.

Second, the one-sided portrayal of Dryman is matched by a one-sided portrayal of life in the GDR. As in many other portrayals of the former Eastern-bloc states, the GDR is seen as a place where the streets are always empty, the people never smile and wear nothing but bad anoraks, there is huge repression (unlike anything we know in the West), the moral corruption of the government minister and crass careerism of Grubitz are typical of the values of members of the government, and the only thing people outside the government are concerned with is escape to the Elysian Fields of the capitalist west. To be sure, many of these unsavoury features were prevalent in the GDR, but unless they are set in the context of the many progressive characteristics of the former East German state (free health care and education, full employment, support for anti-imperialist regimes elsewhere in the world, and so on), the result does not make for convincing cinema, at least not for those not completely taken in by the standard capitalist propaganda of the Cold War era. By glossing over the richly contradictory character of the GDR and opting for a simplistic and one-sided portrait of the country, the film is ultimately neither convincing nor realistic.

1 Com:

AN | August 13, 2007

Indeed, and what is more these standard accounts ignore the role of the West in creating the political and economic siege conditions that led to shortages & repression.

I particularly disliked Anna Funder's book Stasiland, where many of the features she complains about are just German/European culture.

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