Monday, June 25, 2007

The Lives of Others

Ever wonder if secret policemen get the blues? Set in East Berlin circa 1984, the German film The Lives of Others tells the story both of secret police of the Stasi and that of hapless targets and informers. The plot revolves around an earnest socialist playwright loyal to the East German regime, and the Stasi officers who have been tasked with spying on him. Unlike Good Bye Lenin! which trafficked in cheerful Ostalgie, The Lives of Others deals with the grim details of one of the most paranoid countries in history.

Even by the standards of other nations behind the Iron Curtain, the East Germans had the dubious distinction of being the most spied upon people on earth. It has been said that nearly every man, woman and child in the country had a Stasi dossier, and nearly two thirds of the populace had either been a Stasi agent, Stasi informer, or spied upon by the Stasi, a feat of espionage that dwarfs even the formidable efforts of the Soviet KGB and Romanian Securitate. From simple bugging, to video surveillance to collecting scent samples, no scrap of information was apparently too trivial for the organization charged with being "the sword and shield" of the Communist party.

Like their Soviet counterparts, the Stasi's primary task was to ferret out "politically unreliable" people, a category that included not only genuine dissidents, but even loyal party members or Stasi other Stasi officers who might be caught telling a joke about Erich Honecker within earshot of his superiors. Loyalty to the party, naturally, was certainly no guarantee of immunity from the Stasi. When the film's playwright protagonist, himself a true believer in the socialist system, finds out that he himself has been targeted by spies and informers, the shock is nearly too great to bear, and immediately, he begins asking himself why the Stasi come to search his house, and which one of his friends may be an informer.

I can think of no other film that has presented life behind the Iron Curtain with such seriousness and which has eschewed resorting to cheap political polemic or Yakov Smirnoff style comedy. At a time when former Stasi agents are trying their hand at historical revisionism, The Lives of Others dismisses sentimentality and nostalgia for the unvarnished paranoia and mistrust that characterized the most spied upon society in human history.


Michael said...

A Stasi film...Scheisse!!!

Michael said...

Great film...I just finished watching it. They do an excellent job tying together loose ends at the movie's conclusion.