Friday, February 09, 2007

A Different Take on the Lastest Ostalgie Installment

Ok, some updated opinon on The Lives of Others - the latest "Ostalgie" film (although this one is actually anti-DDR from what I can tell, and by a westerner to boot). I was following links about it and ended up on the page for the original German version of the DVD. Most of the reviews were positive - but there was one that wasn't, and it made some really good points (and, more importantly, had me laughing out loud). I'm still interested to see the film, but I thought I would post an English translation of the review here. (If this turns out to be illegal I'll be happy to take this down.) It was called "James Bond in the DDR?" Text (or my sorry translation of same) follows:

The film "The Lives of Others" by Florian Henckel von Donnersmark is, from a cinematic point of view, a success. It has good pacing, attention to atmosphere, good camerawork, fantastic actors and doesn't seem nearly as long to watch as it actually is.

And yet it has a decided weakpoint: it's not credible. It begins with a dry, semi-documentary introduction about the function and work of the Stasi and then leads into a believable look at the examination and schooling of Stasi officer candidates. But immediately thereafter it descends into a cock-and-bull story about a system that never existed populated by citizens who never lived.

Culture Minister Hemf (Thomas Thieme) wants the author Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Kock) watched, so that he can get him out of the way and take his girlfriend Chista-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). But the Stasi Officer assigned to the case (Ulrich Muehe) develops a sympathy for his victim and protect him, without regard for his own risk.

This is a very touching story, which unfortunately can never have taken place in the real DDR. You don't have to have lived there to see that. You only have to try to use your head while you watch the film rather than just stuffing your face with popcorn.

Maybe Georg Dreymann is loyal to the system, fine. But his closest friends include people like theater director Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), who is forbidden to work, and the journalist Hauser (Hans-Uwe Bauer), who has been arrested by the Stasi before. If Dreymann has these kinds of friends, why isn't he already being watched? Even if the Stasi really trusted him, they would really like to have known what sorts of things his friends talk about when they're over for a visit. But no, the shadowing has to start now.

And then comes the next problem. The whole action is top secret. But the Stasi sit there with a wagon full of grey men on the sunniest of days in front of the building and wait for Dreymann to leave to storm the apartment. And none of the neighbors notice anything?

Well, one, the neighbor across the hall sees it all through the judas hole. For this Wiesler threatens her that he'll take away her daughter's place at the university if she talks. But in a real police state he wouldn't have needed to say anything. Everything would have been clear to her. More likely, he would have invited her to an "informative talk" about her neighbor and made her a some kind of second-rate informant.

The actual installation of the microphone is also amusing. The whole time the grey Stasi people wear grey gloves. They can't leave any fingerprints behind now can they? Because if Dreymann notices something amiss and goes to the police, who lift some fingerprints and then arrest the Stasi agents ... HELLLOOOOOO, where the hell are we? That's not the DDR, that's a kindergarten! James Bond for the wannabe politically informed.

Later, as Dreymann decides he wants to write a text that's critical of the system, he "tests" his apartment while Hauser's uncle is on a visit from West Berlin: they shout all around their apartment that they're going to smuggle Hauser into the west in the trunk of his uncle's car. As the uncle goes over the border without being searched, they decide the apartment is safe. It seems that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck thinks all DDR citizens are complete idiots. Does he really believe that a citizen of the DDR really thinks he can "test" his apartment so easily? And does he really believe that the Stasi would be so dumb to fall for such a ridiculous idea? And just what kind of horrible policestate is this, in which one only has to test his apartment to feel himself safe? Yeah, if it were that easy, then what was so terrible about the DDR?

But it gets even better: Dreymann gets a visit from a journalist from the West, who's going to publish his text. Wiesler's boss Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) tells him of a journalist whose car "was followed from the border to the Prenzlauer Berg and then lost." Wiesler protects Dreymann and says he knows nothing. Of course, it's unrealistic to "lose" a western auto in the DDR. Someone, the local ABV, a Stasi informant who lives in the street, an informant in a neighboring apartment, someone would have seen the car in front of Dreymann's house and reported.

In any case, no operation of this kind would ever have been left to a single operative, but would instead have been done by several organs with several workers each. Agents with bugs, but also the regular local police, informants that live in the next house or the one across the street (see above), "inconspicuous" agents who shadow on the street, etc... So that it can't happen that a single worker would suddenly develop a conscience, as happens in the film. In a police state everyone watches everyone - even those who do the watching.

And if you start reading and gathering information about how it really must have been in the DDR, you end up pulling out all your hair over just how far from reality this film lies. In no way does it show how things were in the DDR, but only how a west German director would have imagined things must have been.

Many say that "das Leben der Anderen" is only for fun, and so there's artistic license. That's true, but the problem is that many people seem to forget precisely this and come out with commentaries like: "Now I've seen life in East Germany" and "that's how it was with the Stasi." In effect, the film shamelessly renders harmless the real human relationships of a policestate. If you really want to learn something about the Stasi, you'd do better to watch films like Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," or Michael Anderson's "1984." They're science fiction, granted, but they do a 100-times better job capturing the situation in the DDR.


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