Flashback Review: The Lives of Others

In hearing about the 12 year sentence of lard labor for nothing more specific than "grave crimes" against North Korea, journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee are on the minds of many, including the realization that they are indeed pawns of a totalitarian regime bent on "proving" some sort of strength through the subjugation of others. Instead, it proves nothing but cowardice, for only a despotic regime would brutally subjugate others to prove a sense of power or control.

With this in mind, it reminded me of the film The Lives of Others, which I reviewed first in 2007 for the Humanitarian Media Foundation (HMF). I wanted to repost this here, because the issues are similar. North Korea is, like East Germany was during the Cold War, a communist regime which controlled its population through fear, tyranny, and an abject lack of personal freedom, believing that such methods were necessary for absolute power and control of its population. No one knew the truth about such regimes unless those inside were able to smuggle news out. While we do not know if Laura Ling and Euna Lee were across the border into North Korea from China, we do know that they were researching and doing a story on human trafficking. And it is true that now they have some sense what other citizens of North Korea most fear when facing off against the government.

Below is the original review as posted on the HMF blog, with the warm hope that anyone who faces regimes such as this will one day, like the citizens of East Germany and other totalitarian regimes which now have transformed into states with democratic ideals, know the freedoms which come from attention to the human rights to which we are all entitled. Indeed, if anything, the end of the Cold War, among other pinnacle moments in human history, prove that change is possible. Sometimes it just takes pressure within and without the governments in question, and the ability to reveal the truth behind facades of control.

Flashback Review: The Lives of Others

(Original Post: August 30, 2007, HMF blog)

In finally being able to see movies–and read material–that I’ve wanted and needed to get to for some time, last night I watched the DVD of
The Lives of Others, which I wanted to mention here, having been both extraordinary, and a film which talks about the power of what it means to be a good man–and fully alive–in the atmosphere of Communism in East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and in fact, the Iron Curtain itself.

There are those alive now who do not remember the Cold War–the constant strain of East versus West, the arms race, and a world inhabited by two distinct superpowers whose every movement, every action was a means of ostensibly flipping the proverbial bird (anyone remember that scene in
Top Gun?) to the other side–and holding the very sense of life on the planet in the balance. Everything was about influence–financial, political–and in terms of the propaganda which flew in trying to create leverage on a strained and exhaustive quest for political advantage. The United States and the Soviet Union were both in what seemed like a war which would yield one of two things: either the perpetual continuity of a powerful stalemate until one side broke, or at some unknown fork in the road, a path to ultimate destruction. The Nuclear Age was a palpable presence–it hung in the air like a dense, ominous fog, and the stakes were truly high. Those of us who remember can still hear in our minds the newscasts or some “Special Report” when in some part of the world, the United States and the Soviet Union went head to head, usually under the auspices of our support for some other country, but which had the capacity to explode into the potential for nuclear conflict. We all remember the significance of DEFCON (i.e. "Defense Condition" ) 1.

In this world, East Germany--or the German Democratic Republic (GDR), in German, Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR)--in being a satellite of sorts of The Soviet Union (despite being considered sovereign in 1955, it still had Soviet troops ensconced by virtue of the Potsdam Agreement), was under the fist of Communism, and their henchmen in keeping the DDR in control were the secret police known as the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS / Ministry for State Security). Their job was to keep watch on the citizens of East Germany and single out any one or any organization which would be considered a threat to the state. This included–as any communist regime would–artists, actors, writers, directors, playwrights, musicians–anyone who could surreptitiously influence the thinking of the public, and whose influence might indeed be considerably powerful were they also to be particularly successful–including were they successful enough to be an influence outside the DDR. In such cases, those with that kind of notoriety and influence might feel enough audacity–and have access–to perhaps be tempted to reveal the actual conditions under which they and other citizens were forced to live. Such people, like intellectuals and professors–who are always targeted as well in such regimes–were potentially very dangerous to the overall stability of the communist state and its hold over its citizens. Give anyone a whiff of freedom, and watch how quickly they are apt to become agitators, on some human level somehow believing freedom is a human right.

The Lives of Others, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, depicts this reality with the starkness of how life in the DDR must truly have felt–all colors are shown in muted, gray or earth tones depending upon what faction is being shown–the Stasi, or the artistic community made up of the writers, directors, actor and playwright who are bending to the point of breaking under the system and the inability to speak, write, or act unless it is according to the will–or consent–of the state. All DDR scenes–in the temporary detention center–in the home of the Stasi officer who is one of the people at the center of the film–are bleak, gray, flat and institutional. Among the artists, there is the warmth and–importantly, the texture–of earth tones which seek to break out of the gray –a metaphor, perhaps, of the natural will of humans who are forced into submission. Like the gray of winter, spring will come–the inevitable will of the human soul, like the earth, warm and soft, and ready for the seeds of whatever can most grow in fertile soil. In this case, there is no more fertile soil than that of the warm, powerful mind of an artist who finds himself succumbing to the natural will to express truth–and such truth, as the old saying goes, will out…regardless of the personal cost.

In the midst of this struggle is Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, played by former East German actor Ulrich Mühe, who is charged with keeping eyes–and ears–on the playwright Georg Dreyman, whose play he has just seen, and whose lover, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (shortened by the Stasi in their reports as CMS) is the object of desire by Minister Bruno Hempf, whose influence, and lascivious greed, makes Dreyman a target. He is both an influential playwright and a supposed “believer” in the state–but that means nothing in the face of the lust of a government official used to getting–and possessing–anything he wants. The Stasi–and Wiesler–are to find something on Dreyman–whatever it takes. These people’s lives mean nothing in the balance, and perhaps can even be used, Wiesler is told, to advance his career if he succeeds in finding some means for Dreyman to be implicated of any crime against the DDR.

Such are the priorities of a communist state–implicating another, or subjugating someone with less power, has its privileges. And if one won’t cooperate, what better means than fear to cause one to conform. Whether the threat of surveillance, of being taken to interrogation for days without sleep, or being kept from doing the one thing which makes you feel human–even if it means offering someone you love in a Faustian bargain, one will be forced to submit. One must also never forget the threat of years of imprisonment–even death–at even the slightest political, creative, or personal affront. One need only look the wrong way at a Communist party member, and your name goes on the list. More evidence, and unless you have something to offer, you may never see the light of day again.

It is in this reality, and in becoming a secret part of the lives of Dreyman, Christa-Maria, and their circle of friends, that Wiesler is given a glimpse into another world. They are unknowingly under constant surveillance–every word is being heard–every movement documented. Their world even amidst the oppression of everyday life in the DDR is somehow alive. The depth of friendship, the love between man and woman, the true emotion expressed in the word and actions of these men and the one woman among them–awakens the humanity which has been subsumed by years of constant propaganda and the life of a Stasi officer–in which one may as well be a machine–never showing emotion–never betraying vulnerability, and instead are taught to manipulate the emotions and vulnerabilities of others. No personal connection–no emotion–is sacred. Anything can be used to break a human soul who has been targeted, and to do so, one cannot be seen as human.

The act of listening–truly listening–is an intimate action. Wiesler is a man whom we can see is strung tight–and seemingly almost imperviously so. And perhaps because he is so stoic we must reasonably assume that there is much emotion there–even if it is unseen. Those who will not bend at some point must break. That emotion would find catharsis somehow–and whatever human being–whatever man hiding underneath the severity of his Stasi facade is at first almost subconsciously drawn to the poignancy of their lives–and later, ultimately to the point where he is willing to sacrifice the necessity of his role–and his job–to keep some semblance of the power of these people’s souls intact. Once one feels that freedom–and the truth of such emotion–he can never go back. And this is paralleled by Dreyman’s personal arc–the celebrated playwright who has willingly supported the idea of the state. Where once he could find expression within the limitations of the system, with the subjugation of his dearest friends–including one’s suicide after having been implicated–to the subjugation of his own lover–he comes to realize that the system under which he has tried to work is a behemoth whose means of existence are dependent upon the destruction of others. This destruction has touched him on the deepest personal levels to the point where he, too, cannot go back.

This is one of the more powerful films I have seen in some time–with the true depth of what again should not be forgotten experience. Many of us may see the Cold War as an afterthought–but in looking at the bigger picture, we also have to remember that there are still regimes under which people are kept from what should be considered natural freedoms–and who are under subjugation by governments which view certain activity as a threat. Our own included, which I pray will never allow herself to go too far in terms of believing the security of the state is worth denying the most basic of freedoms.

In terms of performances, the two men at the heart of this film have given two of the most powerful performances I have seen in any film–domestic or international–this year. Where Pan’s Labyrinth showed the magic of an alternate reality which could be found by a little girl forced to deal with unmitigated brutality, The Lives of Others depicts the choices we as adults must make when faced with a similar choice, in a world whose brutality is just as great, and, similarly, in which we have the power to express truth, whatever the cost, and should we have the courage.

It is only when the stakes are truly great that the true character of a man will be known–and this is shown, heart and soul, by Mühe as Weisler, and Sebastian Koch as Dreyman. For two characters who have never formally met, their lives are inexorably linked, as is the power of the choices they have chosen to make, each of which, in a rather poignant metaphor in the film, shows him to be a good man. And for a Stasi officer to make that transition, one must see that to not have made the transition would have been unbearable once he allowed himself to be human–whatever the cost.

As an additional note, and worth mentioning, Koch can also be seen in Paul Verhoeven’s WWII film Black Book, and I warmly believe he is one whom the international–and American–film industries will begin to seek after soon with a vengeance. If they haven’t already, they should. Like Mühe, this is a man whose power as an actor is extraordinary, and in his case, with a soul which is almost incandescent. As Dreyman, every emotion could be felt powerfully, as though exuding from deep within and being surreptitiously transferred to the audience. He played the epitome of the true artist, whose art is a reflection of the tension between the warm power of joy and the poignancy of suffering, making truth the ultimate holy grail–whether in terms of professing love or exposing the blackened heart of a corrupt, dangerously mercenary government. Mühe’s arc was just as powerful–and moreso in terms of the emotion which needed to be seen through the stoicism of a powerful, Stasi facade.

The Lives of Others won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it will be truly good to see what those involved–from the writer/director to the actors, do next. This is one of those films which others talk about, but perhaps some will not see–whether because of subtitles or because one feels he or she can always get to it in time. My suggestion would be to see it sooner rather than later. Films like this are warmly worth seeing.


K.J. Wetherholt is a former media executive and currently a writer, producer, and Co-Founder/Board Chairman of The Humanitarian Media Foundation (HMF). Her book, The Illumination: A Novel of the Great War (2006) will be released in paperback next year and is currently being packaged as a feature film out of Europe for future production.

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