Friday, February 09, 2007

Another Ostalgie Must-see

The film I most wanted to see in 2007 opens today, but only in New York and LA. Damn!

It's called The Lives of Others(Das Leben der Anderen), and it's about a Stasi minder in East Germany in 1984 who has something of a change of heart about his job after he's assigned to watch an artist who is under suspicion (ironically) for having never criticized the regime. (Aparently we get a few shots of him in 1989 too, facing his uncertain future in reunited Germany).

I'm interested in this because the director says all the right things in this fascinating interview, in which the interviewer invites him to respond to all the specific criticisms the film has gotten. There aren't many, it turns out, but the two they discuss in depth struck a nerve with me. More or less, the idea is that the film is either (a) too sentimental or (b) puts too much of a human face on the secret police in a totalitarian regime.

I think this is a big issue for everyone. On the one hand, we have seen evil and know it's real - but on the other, pure examples are vanishingly rare. Putting a human face on the Stasi isn't exactly the same as saying they were nice guys. But whatever the flaws in it, it's certainly better than the alternative, which is just to write them off as thugs and never raise the question at all.

One of the critics discussed wonders what would happen if the movie were instead about an ex-Gestapo minder who, sometime in the early 60s, suddenly has a midlife crisis and realizes that everything he did in the Hitler years was wrong. The implication is supposed to be this tired old conservative cliche that Communism gets off the hook where Fascism never does. And like most cliches, this one happens to be true: it is a very strange thing, something I have never understood and probably will never understand, but somehow leftist thugs get more leeway than right-wing thugs. There's a greater tendency to humanize and forgive them. But also like all cliches, this one has a way of simplifying a complicated issue - so I would just say the following two things. First - what, indeed, would be wrong with a movie that humanized an old Gestapo minder? If we can believe it of the commies, then certainly we can believe it of the jackboots too! The way to fight leftist bias in Hollywood isn't just to demonize their heroes for them - it's also to insist that they humanize their demons, if you get my meaning. It would indeed be interesting to me to see a movie about a Gestapo man who has a change of heart - because I think that would essentially be the same story that's being told in The Lives of Others, and it would be every bit as believable and worthwhile. It isn't, after all, as though there are no examples from human history of a Nazi ever living to regret his support for what turned out to be an odious regime! And indeed, probably the most interesting part about the story in both cases - both in the Socialist case as well as the Fascist one - is that the person joins the regime with some kind of not-so-subconscious knowledge that his heroes aren't the good guys. It just takes a while for that realization to grow and to turn into action in a lot of people. Second, what is the point of making a movie about someone who's just bad? Who would want to watch such a movie? Why is it (supposedly) so much easier to believe in Stasi officers who are simply bad, end of story? We all live our lives in the free world, and we encountter people who are mostly nice and friendly. Is it really plausible to think that the Stasi recruiting apparatus is really so efficient that none of these ever slip through the cracks and put on the uniform? In any case, you don't have a story to tell if all you have is someone who simply hates people and joins the Stasi to bash in a few skulls. The much more interesting, and important, story is the man who joins the Stasi because he thinks he is defending Socialism - and then learns a thing or two about Socialism in the process...

As for the charge that the movie is "sentimental," I'll have to wait and see for myself. Netflix has it on backorder (it's not yet available on DVD), so I know that I will be able to see it eventually, even if not in the theater. I will just say, though, that I've long been aware that I have a somewhat different idea of "sentimental" than the mainstream press seems to have. Some of the schlockiest movies get passed off as profound (see The Piano for an example of a truly horrible film that somehow convinced people it was about something), while others are castigated for simply enjoying themselves (e.g. Labyrinth). Sometimes there is something to the charge that a movie is "sentimental," I'm just saying you have to be very careful which critics you listen to on this. Everyone has a different idea about where to draw the line between cheese and good fun. (I will say that the trailer - linked above - doesn't look too promising.)

The best point in the interview is this one:

I wanted it to begin pretty much from the beginning and for there to never be an actual turning point because that is something that all the books on screenwriting say: if there's any change in character, there has to be a clearly-identified turning point. Even the old Greeks would go on about that. But I think it's wrong because, unless there's divine intervention, I don't think that things happen like Saul who turns into St. Paul from one day to the next. This day I'm killing Christians and the next day I am one. It doesn't happen like that.

Right. Even though we get this in films and books all the time, and even though this is even a perception we have of our own lives, I think reality is that there generally isn't a clearly-identifiable "turning point" for most character shifts. They happen over time, and maybe people rewrite their memories so that there is some profound epiphany at some point, but more properly it's a process.

No one has the impression that, oh wow, the Stasi were actually the good guys. Quite the contrary. Why I am telling the story of The Lives Of Others is to show people how they could behave given such a situation. And these situations will arise again. You don't have to have an absolute dictatorial system. It can be within the confines of a school, or a hierarchical business organization, or whatever, that we will have the chance to display a similar kind of heroism to put it simply as [Wiesler] is displaying. It makes it too easy for people in criminal organizations like the Stasi or the Gestapo if you say that once you're a member of that group that's it, you've lost your humanity, you're morally dead, it's over, there's no possibility for you to redeem yourself. You can always change your ways.

Again, right. There isn't much point in art that depicts life as it actually is. Of course, there has to be some measure of realism; we have to be able to suspend our disbelief and participate as though the story were real. But I don't much see the use in recreating actual historical events - at least, not in doing so and calling it "art." Art is about life as it could and should be. A useful and uplifting story about the Stasi is this one. There wouldn't be a point in just telling us about some random spying that some random government agent did just to feed his random stomach in a random totalitarian regime!

But I admit, my main curiosity in this is what was alluded to above: that there is a kind of nostalgia (they called it Ostalgie - a portmanteau of "East" and "nostalgia" in German) about the East in Germany, and you just don't see that kind of thing about the Nazi regime. I would say that's because the Nazi years ended ... oh, how to put it ... rather badly for the general population, what with the firebombing and general chaos and carnage and all - but this exists in more than just Germany. One of my Russian friends in Korea told me she misses Communism, and certainly a Bulgarian friend talks the same way from time to time. More to the point, all the same old mistakes are happening again right now in Venezuela. The link goes to an article where a government official there denies that there is a meat shortage. The problem, apparently, is that people have been unwilling to sell it at the regulated price, with the consequence that there isn't any meat in the supermarkets. You know, because the lack of something is only a "shortage" if... Well, I don't know what he actually means - but even with this kind of bullshit spewing daily out of the mouths of its official spokemen, the Chavez regime enjoys a decent amount of support. Clearly - there is something to this Socialism-nostalgia stuff, and I really really would like to understand what it is. I know that a movie isn't the best way to get at it, but trying to imagine what the lives of people in East Germany were actually like - even (especially?) the lives of the jailors, is interesting for this reason all the same.


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