An excellent movie about Communist East Germany
(Note: This thread includes an explanation of why today’s Germans forbid criticism of Communism and consider such criticism to be the mark of a Nazi.)
The 2006 German movie The Lives of Others concerns an efficient, loyal, emotionally suppressed functionary of the East German security apparatus, Wiesler, who, in 1984, before Glasnost, is assigned to spy on the popular playwright Dreyman, who up to this point has been a favorite of the regime. When Wiesler discovers that Dreyman has done nothing wrong, and that the high government official ordering the surveillance is seeking to destroy Dreyman for purely personal reasons, Wiesler’s previous unthinking faith in his profession is shaken. It is as though the rigid armature of his personality is broken open and new thoughts, new feelings, the humanity that has been suppressed by Communism, start to awaken in him.
Wiesler, magnificently played by Ulrich Muhe (who was born in the German Democratic Republic in 1953), never discusses his dilemma with anyone. We see the entire transformation take place in the expressions of his face, as he finds himself having sympathy with and then covering up for the man he is spying on and is supposed to be sending to prison. Meanwhile, Dreyman, as a result of a respected older colleague’s blacklisting by the state and subsequent suicide, also starts to doubt the regime, and thus begins to commit the “crimes against the state” (namely pubishing an article about East German suicide rates in a West German magazine) of which he had previously been innocent.
In the portrayal of Dreyman’s mistress Christa, a successful though insecure stage actress who is coerced into a sordid sexual affair with a government minister, the movie shows how the German Democratic Republic absolutely broke the spirit of its subjects, by creating a system in which the only way you could survive was by selling out your friends, your loved ones, and yourself.
The Lives of Others is an excellent and, in the end, deeply touching film. It was made by a first-time writer/director by the florid name of Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck (born in Cologne, 1973), who speaks unaccented English and gives extensive commentaries on the DVD.
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To me, it is incredible that such a film could be made (and become a success) in Germany at all. Maybe there is still hope.
I am from West Germany and I am living in East Germany for more than a year now. The culture shock I had when I came here was much worse than the one I felt when I went to work in England years ago. I may have arrived here as a cultural conservative with liberal (in the European meaning of the word) political overtones, but those 14 months have turned me into a raving anti-Communist.
Even now, 18 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, one can clearly see almost every day the effect the dictatorship had on the people here.
The system crept in every nook and cranny of peoples’ life and although they did not start a world war and undertook no Holocaust, they overshadowed everyday life much worse than the Nazis did at first. The system sniffed peoples’ underwear and bedclothes, they totally and utterly broke them.
Of course, that lasted more than forty and not twelve years like the “Third Reich,” and I have only a limited point of view because I am too young to tell with much authority how people behaved 18 years after the end of the Third Reich. However, I can’t remember having ever come, as a child, across people with that shell-shocked, numb look they are wearing here.
Such an opinion would bring me in trouble in today’s Germany, mind you. At a time when Nobel Laureate (and since then outed SS-man) Gunther Grass gets away with calling the former GDR a “kommode Diktatur” (a “comfortable dictatorship”) an opinion like mine is highly unpopular.
I would, too, be accused to attempt a whitewashing of the Nazis and of relativizing the Holocaust, but, by God, that is not my intention. My father was in prison for political reasons as early as 1934, when he was 22. He was lucky that he was released, physically unharmed. He always said that this was due to the fact that his imprisonment had taken place at such an early stage of the Third Reich. He worked in the underground all the following years and survived to have me later. He was a socialist and had taught me to hate Nazis from the cradle, for which I will always be grateful. To see here every day what his “comrades” did to the people, to see what a stupid man he was, that hurts.
As for Hollywood, I am a believer in America’s self-healing forces. Different from us, you haven’t got the burden of countless wars, dividedness and oppression to carry. No feudal system you are carrying in your mental baggage.
You wrote: “the florid name of Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck… “
That made me smile. Actually, his real name is even more florid. It’s Florian Maria Georg Christian Graf von Henckel zu Donnersmarck.
His uncle, who calls himself Gregor Henckel-Donnersmarck, is a Cistercian abbot.
A marvelous male specimen of the human race, that Florian.
[LA adds: I’m not sure what Calamitas is referring to, but someone just told me that according to Wikipedia, von Donnersmarck is 6 feet 9 inches tall.]
A reader writes:
You might add to your post, Larry, that von Donnersmarck did not allow the West any part in the fall of Communism—no tear down this wall—Gorbachev was the big thing that would soon be coming. That might be why Hollywood and Euro left went for it. Also, your idea that it was not pure Communism so much as opportunists using Communism to have power and do what they like and the true believer becomes disillusioned. However, these may seem small-minded, because it is a good film and it really does show the horror of what happens to the human soul under Communism.
LA asks Calamitas:
Why do you think left-wing Hollywood liked this movie? Normally Hollywood ignores or puts down anything to do with anti-Communism.
Is it because the movie gives Gorbachev credit for the end of Communism, and Reagan is not mentioned?
Is it because the main plot line does not have to do with Communism per se but with a Communist official using his power to get his way with a woman?
I think you are right when you say that Hollywood didn’t perceive the film primarily as anti-Communist (which it probably wasn’t meant to be) and I am sure that the credits (Gorbachev yes—Reagan no) had something to do with it as well.
I guess that for all which can be said about Hollywood from a political point of view, they still know a good film when they see one. Additionally, Henckel von Donnersmarck has true (bankable) star-quality.
Dimitri K. writes:
Since you started talking about Germany and Germans, I dare express my opinion. Germans contributed a lot to Europe, when they actually created most if not all states in Northern and Central Europe. For example, Russian statehood started with the Varyag (Norman or Swede) conquest 1000 years ago of Kyev—the main Russian city, founded by Khazars. Germans founded lots of states. Some of those nice small German states like Norway or Holland still exist. But when Germans united, they became a problem. That’s why I think that the unification of Germany in 1991 was no good. Not because I am , God forbid, missing the Soviet Union. But the common excitement in the West about the unification is hard to understand. East Germany should have stayed an independent European state. Germans are much better when they are not united.
Tim W. writes:
Thanks for the info on “The Lives Of Others.” I’m planning to order it after reading about it. Another anti-Communist film is “The Blue Kite.” It’s a 1993 film from China about life during the Cultural Revolution. Post-production work on the film had to be completed outside China because Beijing shut the production down after learning of the script’s content. The director, Tian Zuangzuang, was banned from making another film for five years, and was only allowed to resume work under strict government supervision.
Why do you say that the movie was probably not meant to be anti-Communist? It’s true it hardly mentions Communist ideology. Perhaps it’s more like a movie against generic tyranny and bureacratism.
Yes. I don’t know whether FHD consciously refrained from making an anti-Communist film and instead one about generic tyranny and bureaucratism, because he realized a truly anti-Communist film would be unmarketable in today’s Germany, or whether he just prefered a “non-political” approach. Maybe a mixture of both, but here I can only speculate.
I, for one, did not take it as an anti-Communist film and neither did the German public and media, or it wouldn’t have become the success it is.
Anyway, I still find it remarkable that he made the film at all. The general gut feeling that “left = good” and “right = bad” hangs over Germany like a wet rag, and “right” is, of course, defined by the Nazis. I think people here would get a mass heart attack if somebody of notice would publicly say that the Nazis were nothing but Socialists painted brown. A typical example of the excrescences we have to suffer here are the disgusting “Love Parades.” The logic goes like that: Homosexuals were persecuted by the Nazis, so they are by some weird reverse conclusion good by definition. A similar “logic” is applied to Communism. It is very difficult for a German to escape that way of thinking, both mentally and factual, because it would put paid to his career.
I’m sorry for being so naive, but I just don’t understand. West Germany was at the front line against Communism and was the main target of the Warsaw Pact for 40 years, then Communism died, and now you’re saying that it’s forbidden in Germany to criticize Communism? This makes no sense.
You write: “I’m not sure what Calamitas is referring to, but someone just told me that according to Wikipedia, von Donnersmarck is 6 feet 9 inches tall.”
Yes, I meant that, but not JUST that. Tall, handsome, well bred, talented and an aura of being simply a nice man.
Even a woman past middle age may gawp at such a guy. (I hope.)
Dimitri K. wrote: “But when Germans united, they became a problem. That’s why I think that the unification of Germany in 1991 was no good. Not because I am , God forbid, missing the Soviet Union. But the common excitement in the West about the unification is hard to understand. East Germany should have stayed an independent European state. Germans are much better when they are not united.”
I agree with Dimitri
Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 12, 2007 07:37 PM | Send
“I’m sorry for being so naive, but I just don’t understand. West Germany was at the front line against Communism for 40 years and was the principal target of Communist Warsaw Pact, then Communism died, and now you’re saying that it’s forbidden in Germany to criticize Communism? This makes no sense.”
You are not naive, it is just that the recent German history is very complex and the changes were rather subtle. Additionally, Americans tend to take Germany’s loyalty for granted, different from that of France, a fact that will never cease to amaze me.
Here is my answer in a nutshell:
The front line against Communism was forced upon the Germans by their first chancellor Konrad Adenauer for good reasons. The German people were never behind it.
There is a long, decisively anti-democratic, anti-Western and anti-Semitic tradition in the German history of ideas, a tradition that has by no means come to an end.
The three “antis” are largely inter-changeable.
The awareness of the crimes of Nazi Germany has not reduced but increased the above resentments, as has American generosity.
By embracing another totalitarian worldview that was persecuted under the Nazis regime, the Germans have managed to eat their cake and to keep it. What was once persecuted by the Nazis must be good today, by that logic from the nuthouse.
Decisive points in time were the 1968 students’ movement with its “march through the institutions,” the taking over of government responsibility by the Socialists, which both happened, respectively started, in the late Sixties already, and finally the filtering down of Communist ideology after the reunification, which cemented the status quo.
By the above logic from the nuthouse, you will be accused to be a “Nazi” if you are anti-leftist in today’s Germany.