Monday 24 September 2012

Austere architecture and human redemption in The Lives of Others.

The Lives of Others (2006) directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is set in East Berlin, five years before the downfall of communist East Germany (or the German Democratic Republic). The story centres on a covertly activist playwright and his actress girlfriend. Both professions notoriously monitored for any deviations from the status quo during the cruel years policed by the notorious Stasi.
The film follows the appointment of Captain Gerd Wiesler, who hopes to boost his career by taking on the job of bugging and spying on the couple. Over the following months the couple’s intimate lives are revealed to Wiesler. The depth of their creativity makes him very aware of the emptiness of his own life, which is echoed in his lonely existence within the system.

Cathy Lomax 25.08.09 He wondered if he should get the kid's family arrested; 2009, oil on paper, 23x30.5cm

There is an element of Schindlers List (1993) about the storyline, as Wiesler faces his own internal crisis of conscience. But although the film can be seen as uplifting and in praise of human compassion against the backdrop of this tragic, claustrophobic and paranoid era, it has been noted that in the real communist East Berlin an individual would never have been allowed, nor would have been able to have such a crisis of conscience. The system in this particular totalitarian state (as opposed, say, to that of apartheid South Africa, which had opposing ‘sides’) ruled over its entire people and the ones closest to the system were under just as much scrutiny, if not more than the other inhabitants. This was backed up by state jobs being delegated to more than one person, so no individual would ever have complete control over any one task, especially surveillance. However, the simple act of a human having the ability to change their mind during such a pressurising regime, offers hope.
The apparent reconciliatory nature of people when the Berlin wall came down and the regime ended as shown in the film is in stark contrast to the actual feelings that were shown at the time. All the records from the regime went on public display for people to trace family members who had disappeared, but this happened for only two years, as it prompted many bloody reprisals against the Stasi who were now living as ordinary civilians.
As with so many films made soon after a time of dramatic social change, the need for openness and truth emerging from a cloudy and secretive past can become distorted in the pursuit of just that, through blame. Hence people directly involved in the former republic during the time the film was set have had differing reactions to it as a portrayal of how events could have actually happened. 
After the state was dismantled a new kind of openness emerged and the Stasi were generally employed not, as depicted in the film, doing a job they were over qualified for but instead as private detectives, managers (they were highly trained in psychological management of people), and estate agents. Much of the press and literature at the time seemed to be preoccupied with the now and moving forward, and not the recent past of the GDR. Not everyone accepted what had happened, and there have been accusations of facts still being hidden by the people who suffered at the hands of the Stasi and claims of victimisation by the ex-Stasi.
Germany over the last 80 years has faced two major totalitarian states and has suffered the denial of and fighting for subsequent truths. This film does have a place in documenting the history of the former GDR, and is beautifully shot, its atmosphere enhanced by the austere state architecture. My one proviso is that I hope someone is making a film, not about an individual’s redeeming act, but how to avoid the individual being subsumed in the first place.

Debbie Ainscoe

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