“The Lives of Others,” the German film that won the 2007 Best Foreign Film Academy Award, and which was reviewed positively on these pages last month (PWW 4/21-27), is a sophisticated attack on socialism that tries to discount many of the extraordinary achievements made by the German Democratic Republic before it was absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in the early 1990s.
The main characters are the playwright Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch) and Gert Weisler (Ulrich Muehle), a domestic surveillance specialist with the GDR State Security Service (Stasi).
The playwright is an honest supporter of socialism, who in his works emulates ordinary people who struggle for a better life. The surveillance agent is also an honest man, dedicated to his mission to protect socialism from its enemies.
The writer starts turning against socialism because a director he admires appears to have been blacklisted from getting any work by a higher-up in the cultural ministry. The director commits suicide, and Dreymann is devastated.
In comes a cultural ministry bigwig who wants to hit on the writer’s girlfriend, a drug addict actor. Mr. Minister gets his bootlicking flunkie in the Stasi to set up a surveillance of the writer’s apartment, with the aim of getting “anything” on the writer that could discredit him, push him out of the way and give Mr. Minister unrestricted access to the drug addict girlfriend.
“You are an informer for the people now,” she is told, as she is slipped a box of pills.
Meanwhile, the writer is so upset about the director’s suicide that he writes an article about it in the GDR and gets a copy of it to a West German magazine mogul who publishes it in the West. Stasi, which had nothing to really look for in the beginning, now has some fresh meat to go after.
The film’s entire focus therefore was on a narrow band of almost irrelevant trash.
Writers and actors, as well as musicians and artists in the GDR rose to the top on the basis of their ability and their popularity, not on the basis of their success in scraping up money or financial backers. Hundreds of West German musicians, writers, dancers and actors performed daily in GDR theaters because they could get heard and noticed based on talent, rather than financial connections.
The film made much about the West German editor who had to scale the Berlin Wall to meet clandestinely with our writer hero. Ridiculous. West German writers and editors walked into East Berlin every single day and walked out again when they were finished with what ever they had to do. You showed your passport at the checkpoint and you went in. You showed it again and you went out. Tens of millions of West Germans traveled into the GDR every year. Thirty percent of the people of the GDR traveled into the West every year to visit family and friends.
The border between east and west was closed in the first place because you could change a West German mark into eight or more East German marks and go to the GDR and literally clean off the shelves of the stores, leaving nothing for workers to buy. When the GDR closed the border, the country, in 12 years, became the 10th largest industrial nation in the world. Fifteen years after socialism, there is 20 percent unemployment in the GDR and what was the GDR is about 40th on the list in terms of industrial production.
This film tries to give us the idea that socialism can’t work because there is too much rotten in human nature. It is a pessimistic film because it says the best we can do is to become like the actor, one of the few “good” men. The brave attempts by several generations of German workers to build a better world, attempts they made with the building of the German Democratic Republic, are sneered at.
The German workers, however, like workers around the world, can always be counted on to rise up after a defeat. “The Lives of Others” notwithstanding, I am sure they will.