Das Leben der Anderen

23:25 Mon 07 May 2007. Updated: 04:27 08 May 2007
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I saw this on Sunday night and it was excellent. I highly recommend it. (The full post contains spoilers, so don’t read this yet if you’re going to go see it.)

Das Leben der Anderen is set in late 80s East Berlin, and features a Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, who is assigned to watch a prominent playwright, Georg Dreyman. It turns out that the real reason for the surveillance is because Dreyman is in the way of a powerful Party bureaucrat who wants the playwright’s actress girlfriend for himself. This disillusions Wiesler, who at the opening of the film is a committed true believer.

The atmosphere is quite convincing, and I felt that it was probably an accurate portayal of what it was like to live in the DDR of the time. A certain dowdy claustrophobia pervades many of the scenes, in addition to a strong sense of isolation.

My only criticisms would be that Georg Dreyman is a little too saintly in the movie, and that in certain respects the likely actual cunning of the Stasi isn’t fully represented—essentially, I felt that Dreyman gets away with trusting his “activist” friends, when in fact any secret police force will infiltrate “activist” groups first. But those are both minor quibbles.

Because of its setting and theme, it actually has a lot of relevance to the contemporary US, although this is likely not widely recognized. The East German police state is an example of what authoritarian regimes are like, and as such shows the outcome of what many prominent Americans appear to want—virtually unlimited secret police powers with little or no oversight. With no oversight and a lot of power, you obviously end up with a lot of abuse, and that corruption spreads through the entire society. Of course there are vast differences between the DDR then and the USA now, but it should be clear from watching this film that secret police forces need a lot of watching, and that if left unsupervised they will be a significantly threatening to democracy.

Free speech, and the relationship between policing speech and abuse of power, is also relevant here. In one quite chilling scene, a young Stasi officer makes a joke about Erich Honecker where a section head can hear it, and the section head tells him his career is over and he might go to prison. Then the section head laughs it off, revealing his reaction as a cruel joke—but the point is that it might not have been, and that making a joke about the head of state might have resulted in harsh punishment. Note that the actual East German laws were probably not written to outlaw humor, but that the Stasi had enough leeway to criminalize a wide range of speech. This is one of the dangers of such laws: they create authorities that have the ability to decide what counts as forbidden speech and what doesn’t, and over time they will expand the definition greatly. This is one of the most frightening things about American right-wingers claiming that their political opponents should be imprisoned for treason: they are promoting a society in which imprisonment for speech is commonplace and determined on entirely political grounds.

Das Leben der Anderen indicates to me that Germany is coping relatively well with its post-Stasi hangover. The film clearly recognizes both the evils of the DDR regime and the humanity (often, the petty humanity) of its agents, and the latter is sadly often put aside to make room for self-righteous retribution. It’s possible that as a country Germany learned valuable lessons from de-Nazification, and has applied those lessons here (for example, in the rapid opening of the Stasi document archives to the public).

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