It begins with a young man, terrified, panicked, being brought in for interrogation by a Stasi officer, Gerd Weisler (an excellent performance by Ulrich Mühe). You can almost smell the stink of the young man’s sweat, of his fear; you can sense that he is going to piss himself. Cutting away from the interrogation itself, we are in a drab classroom where young students, training to be the future grey faceless men and women of the Stasi, are listening to a tape recording of the interrogation. They are being lectured to by Weisler whose stony face bears the faint flicker of pride and triumph in his skill in breaking down another human being. We cut back and forth between those two scenes.
In those opening moments, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film, The Lives of Others, manages to economically and chillingly convey the paranoia, absurdity and cruel efficiency of the East German state. Set – aptly – in 1984, before perestroika started the chain reaction that resulted in the dismantling of the Soviet Union and its client states, the beginning of The Lives of Others promises a dissection of something that might possibly be defined as ‘political evil’. How is it that in the name of ideology a human being can actively engage in activities that are about destroying and annihilating human spirit and creativity? It’s a simple question, but a crucial one: what makes a man like Weisler tick?
That question is, of course, central to so much of modern German history and politics. Forty years ago Hannah Arendt’s stunning, exemplary essay, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’, in part examined the necessity of posing this question even if an ‘answer’ as such was an impossibility. Unfortunately, The Lives of Others is no way near as sophisticated nor as merciless in its own interrogation of recent history. The winner of last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it is a melodrama about redemption. The shocking ruthlessness that Weisler exhibits in the opening of the film gives way to love. He learns to love through learning to appreciate high art, the music of Beethoven. He listens to Beethoven’s music and a tear falls from his eye. The quiet, worshipful audience I saw this film with seemed willing to accept this moment of transcendence as real, as ‘truth’. I couldn’t help myself. I let out a loud groan. Whatever the horrors of the totalitarian East German state, I doubt listening to Beethoven was one of the forbidden activities. But Weisler, in order to be redeemed, has to be remade in the bourgeois image of the artists and dissidents he spies on and whose lives he destroys. The more tantalising question of what would make such a man hate and detest these exemplars of taste and imagination and individualism is left unexamined. A film about a man who so hates humanists that he willingly submits to a regime that annihilates and destroys them would make for a more difficult, more complex film. It would also resonate more fiercely with the global political challenges of our own contemporary world.
It would be a much more uncomfortable film. It might even make some of us sitting in the cinema squirm.
The acute humanism of The Lives of Others, the fact that it does wear its soggy heart on its liberal sleeve, is one of the reasons it has been such a successful art house film. Weisler, as all fallen heroes in conservative cinema must do if they wish to be redeemed, must perform a sacrifice, must undergo a Passion to prove his humanity. He does this for his love of Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), a famous actress forced to compromise her values and her art in order to survive the stultifying grip of the secret police state. Of course, Christa-Maria dies – someone always has to. Evil in The Lives of Others is not banal. It is, unfortunately, stereotypical and melodramatic. The high-ranking government minister who forces Christa-Maria into sex must, of course, be boorish and a bad fuck. The artists and writers must all be, at worst, cowed and frightened; at best, honourable and sacrificing. They must be because the film offers Art (and it is indeed a capitalised concept) as the conduit to compassion, as evidently the sole means of resisting terror.
The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who most certainly knew something about totalitarian terror, once wrote that “Dostoevsky knew many things, but not everything. He thought, for example, that if you murder someone you become a Raskolnikov. But now we know that you can murder fifty, a hundred, people – and then go to the theatre in the evening.” This insight is turned on its head by the film and an opportunity for us to understand something about the nature of totalitarianism is squandered. The Lives of Others is a perfectly decent, finely crafted if somewhat sentimental feel-good movie for the art house audience. But apart from the first ten minutes I learnt absolutely nothing about what might have made a man like Weisler tick.
NOTE: The Lives of Others has had the weight of marketing and its Oscar win behind it. Around the same time, a truly independent US film called Half Nelson sneaked into the cinemas. I’ve been recommending it to friends all over the place, but many of them groan when I tell them the plot: a white teacher (Ryan Gosling), addicted to crack, starts up a friendship with one of his African-American students (Shareeka Epps). But it certainly is not To Sir with Love or Dangerous Minds. It’s so much tougher. Sensitively directed by Ryan Fleck, the film, unlike The Lives of Others, refuses to deal in melodramatic stereotypes of good and evil. It’s also a film that penetratingly captures the malaise and despair of being Left-wing in today’s world. If you missed it on the big screen, get it out on DVD.
Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel is Dead Europe (Vintage, 2005).
© Christos Tsiolkas
Overland 188 – spring 2007, pp. 95–96
Like this piece? Subscribe!