A few months ago, I embarked on a themed series of posts to explore and encompass politics, the mainstream media, journalism and social media. The final part was to have been a detailed review of my No.2 film of the previous decade, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Set in East Germany during the 1980s’ under the Communist regime and focusing on the role of the Stasi, it could be a fitting conclusion to that exploration.
I wrote three of the four pieces at the end of February into March, considering our ability to trust those in authority.
- We have nothing to fear but fear itself … looks at The Politics of Fear, and if / how Governments need (or even create) an identifiable enemy, an imminent sense of threat and uncertainty to retain control and legitimacy
- I read the news today, oh boy… is if anything bleaker, in that it looks at the very real consolidation of media in many countries, and at the declining standards of scrutiny and all-round quality of journalism (‘churnalism’)
- I’m Spartacus… considers the role of digital media and social networking in all of this, as more people say more things more quickly with less control. How do the media and governments respond to social media…?
After that, things got busy at home, and for one reason and another, I never got around to re-watching the film. I’ve recently put that right, but in thinking about how to link it back , I’ve had to consider some pretty massive events that have taken place since those original posts.
It’s become clear that for years that (at least) signficant parts of the UK media, perhaps led by News International, engaged in pretty scandalous behaviour, systemically and illegally tapping phones of everyone from The Royal Family to celebrities to bereaved families of servicemen and murder victims. This may well also have included illegal dealings with elements of the Police, and has insidious implications for the relationships between the media and politicians of every party.
Even more recently, orderly protests ostensibly about the shooting of a man in North London quickly spread and turned into widespread rioting without a cause, looting and arson. The public, media and governmental reaction to this has been multi-faceted and often contradictory, with Twitter-led clean-up brigades set against record numbers of prison inmates as the courts seem to apply one set of rules to these thefts or acts of criminal damage from similar crimes committed only a few months ago.
In the meantime, it’s also clear that despite the increased scrutiny of press standards, the quality of reporting isn’t getting any better.
And so Das Leben der Anderen… please be aware this review contains SPOILERS throughout.
Set in East Germany in 1984, Das Leben der Anderen is a masterpiece, tackling the all-pervading oppression of the Communist regime from that time, exploring themes of alienation, political control through fear, Free Will and our human ability to change, to achieve redemption.
In perhaps my favourite performance on film for as long as I can remember, Ulrich Muhe plays Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, a loyal product of the East German state. He is an interrogator and field agent who implements the Stasi’s mission “to know everything”. He seeks out potential enemies of the state (and therefore the nation), gathers evidence against them, extracts confessions, and secures the stability of the state.
In the opening scenes we see his interview techniques in action as he lectures students eager to work for The Stasi. Everything he does aims to dehumanise: he has fixed routines and processes to his interrogations, almost fixed periods of time during which results can be achieved. Everyone shall conform to his will, there’s no scope for individuality. Indeed, later in the film we learn that “there are 5 types of artists” – everything and everyone can be classified. And once you’ve been classified, there is no chance or ability for you to change.
Wiesler is assigned to listen into the lives of a hitherto ‘loyal’ playwright and his glamorous actress girlfriend. Using effortlessly implanted bugging devices, he is able to lurk in the attic above their apartment, hearing every word, watching every movement, writing detailed reports about every mundane utterance. It is through his observation of their lives, passions and emotions that we unravel quite how dehumanised Wiesler’s own existence is.
He barely exists as a human being, only as HGW/XX7 in his reports. He seems utterly isolated from his colleagues, he doesn’t actually touch anyone except the whores with whom he books an appointment for a clinical, silent, joyless encounter. Only at the end of the film when the actress he has been surveilling is killed does he make physical contact with any meaning or emotion. This very personal depiction is a microcosm of what the state is doing to every individual in the society.
Fear and dread is palpable throughout the film. Citizens (even loyal ones) are totally isolated from each other by the fear of betrayal or even thinking the wrong thing. Wiesler tells his students that to even think of their interrogation procedures could deliver injustices is tantamount to treason. Everything you say can count against you, and you never know who’s listening, and how they might react to your words…
Towards the very end of the film, we see Axel Stiegler again, and it’s clear those words did come back to haunt him…
It becomes clear to us and to Wiesler that the reasons for his latest assignment have nothing to do with preserving the State, and everything to do with petty vendettas, an abuse of power and his lecherous boss’ determination to climb the ladder. He starts to doubt everything he has grown up with as he starts to make connections (albeit silent, one-way ones) with the lives of other people. He starts to question the Stasi’s labelling of its enemies.
Ulrich Muhe says more and conveys more human truths in his expression and eyes than many actors do in a career. This scene in the lift marks a turning point where he begins to make unilateral decisions, he abandons his rule-books. It is the start of Wiesler reclaiming his humanity and achieving some sort of redemption.
The final scenes of the film are bleak and uplifting almost at the same time. We see Wiesler’s career wrecked by the State he loyally served, by his boss who, not getting the report he wanted, punished those who failed to please him. We see him emerge from the (metaphorical) wreckage of the fall of The Berlin Wall into a menial, anonymous life. But it is a real life, and it has meaning, and his actions have been recognised. He has been a Good Man.
Das Leben der Anderen is a fabulous film because it believes that humans are able to change themselves, they can act with free will even against the most astonishing odds, they have the power to do good. This to me is a vital message and should be heeded by everyone who cares about our society…
…where (in the absence of Osama Bin Laden) we’re creating a new enemy in the feral youth underclass
…where we’re labelling the rioters with their ‘sheer criminality’ and evicting families
…where Twitter and Blackberries are blamed for the riots rather than considering anything more complicated
…where politicians’ first thoughts are to restrict free speech (social media) in the face of discontent
Of course we’re not living in a police state where neighbour informs on neighbour. But this film resonates with me on so many levels, that I can’t help making comparisons. I recommend it unreservedly.