Always suspicious of being watched for my own protection I often wonder what everyday life in a police state might be like. Certainly we can gather nuggets of insight on a visit to an airport or courthouse, or enjoy a depressing civics lessons from most Building Departments. But I’m talking about the details of day-to-day life in a total surveillance state. That’s harder to imagine.
For that experience, short of moving into public housing or going to work for the Department of Homeland Security, I recommend the movie, The Lives of Others (which I am going to mildly spoil for you below.) I stumbled on it in a video rental store here in the burbs of San Jose, Costa Rica. I have since learned that it won an Academy Award in 2006 for Best Foreign Film. It has enjoyed nearly uniform praise from critics as diverse as Roger Ebert and William F. Buckley. We’re not exactly on the cutting edge of cinema here in Central America.
Filmed in German by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the action takes place in 1984 in communist East Germany. It paints a gloomy and, from most firsthand accounts, accurate picture of life in a society where everyone was closely watched for signs of disloyalty to the state. Agents of the Stasi, short for the impossible German mouthful “Staatssicherheitsdienst” or state’s security service, were everywhere. At the same time private citizen snitches — blackmailed, bribed, or zealously patriotic — numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Children ratted on parents, husbands on wives, friends on friends. Failure to snitch could mean prison or ruin or both. The now dormant TIPS program proposed by the Bush DOJ a few years ago comes to mind.
When the flavor of German socialism changed from fascism to communism after Hitler’s defeat, little else changed with it. Stasi agents weren’t much different from those of Hitler’s Gestapo. Although notably less violent and less inclined to mass murder, they were a lot thicker on the ground. Stasi spooks outnumbered Gestapo thugs ten to one. The East Germans, as ever, respectful of authority to a fault, fell right into step with the new bosses, cooperating lavishly in their own humiliation.
The movie’s story turns on the conflict between totalitarianism and art. The main character is a stern, ruthless apparatchik named Wiesler, brilliantly portrayed by Ulrich Mühe. He finds his humanity and abandons his ideology when exposed to the intimate details of the lives of two artists, a playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his beautiful actress partner, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck).
Weisler’s assignment is to monitor the two through hidden listening devices planted in their apartment and find a way to discredit Dreyman. Weisler’s boss, the nasty head of the Ministry of Culture wants the writer out of the way of his prurient interest in the sultry actress.
But the reliable snitch and loyal party man is ambushed by beauty. When the writer, in mourning for a friend driven to suicide by the Stasi, plays a Beethoven piano piece, Sonata for the Good Men, it moves the stone hearted Weisler to tears.
Weisler pilfers a book of Berthold Brecht’s poetry from the writer’s apartment. In his own lonely flat late at night Brecht’s words push him further down the path to his waiting compassion. He is also smitten by the beautiful, symbolically named Christa-Maria, and tries to rescue her from the sordid sex his slimy boss is extorting from her.
At a terrible cost, Weisler saves the writer from prison. The Berlin Wall comes down. Shocking revelations of abuse of power and the moral bankruptcy of communism ooze from the gloom of Stasi prisons into daylight. Freedom and art triumph in a successful novel by the rescued writer and finally by the restoration of something a lot more like political liberty to East Germany.
I can hardly say more than the hundreds of critics have said in praise of this fine piece of work. It’s a film everyone should see for the truth it tells about how power over others corrupts those who have it, about the danger of trusting the state and finally about the banality of evil and the power of beauty and human dignity to oppose it.
The powers the Stasi had in East Germany are those we have now granted government agencies in the United States. In the name of protecting ourselves from Arab terrorists, a group almost certainly outnumbered by federal employees, we have given a swarming host of three and four letter government agencies unprecedented power.
Any number of U.S. government agencies can now do what the Stasi did so well in East Germany — search, frisk, snoop, eavesdrop, identify, credential, disarm and ultimately arrest without charges anyone accused of aiding “terrorism.” “Terrorism” is so sweepingly defined that an accurate summary would be “doing or thinking about bad stuff.”
Such power will much more likely spawn overreaching abuse than reduce the already minute dangers posed by “terrorists.” The Lives of Others shows us how that happens more vividly than I can describe it. It also reminds us how rare redemption is for ordinary men abusing unearned power over others. Weisler is remarkable because he is the exception. Art and beauty will always be the enemies of tyranny, but it doesn’t diminish the power of art, beauty or human compassion to observe that the writer, Dreyman, was lucky.