AS WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS once told Edith Wharton, “Americans only want tragedies with happy endings.” And not just Americans, it seems, but also Germans along with everyone else on this punch-drunk planet who is able to afford the price of a movie ticket.
Whenever I tell people that I once lived for sixth months in old East Berlin and even wrote a whole book on ideology and propaganda in that troubled society, they almost always tell me how much they adore Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film The Lives of Others. To them, this movie tells the true story of the East German experience and has redeemed their faith in humanity. "After seeing that movie," they say, "I really get it!" Hmm, I always reply. How can that be? Because to my mind the young West German director’s debut epos is not just manipulative filmmaking but presents a profoundly flawed history lesson. Is my negative take on this Oscar winner - which made number one on The National Review's "list of the 25 best conservative movies of the last 25 years" - merely a product of my imagined superior taste in movies or did the totalitarian experience sour me on “humanity” in general? Or is the scholar and history instructor in me rearing his head again? Since it is hard to explain my concerns to its devotees during a brief elevator ride, let alone amid the hubbub of a cocktail party, I think I owe an incredulous world a thorough explanation of why this movie is something other than "one of the cinema’s finest depictions of the softening of the human heart" (Conservapedia) and why thoughtful moviegoers should consider giving it a miss the next time it hits their local art house.
Before doing so I feel obliged to point out that my disdain for The Lives of Others does not in any way extend to fans of the film. On the contrary! Anyone who is willing to sit through two hours of gloomy Central European melodrama with colorless sets and pretentious subtitles has earned my respect. I also suspect that if I did not have such an intimate acquaintance with the realities of the East German regime, there is at least an outside chance that I might also think it was “the best movie I ever saw” (William F. Buckley). But I think nothing of the kind – and here’s why.
A Marxist-Leninist Christmas Carol
The Lives of Others tells the story of Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler, a professional spy and manipulator, who in 1984 receives orders to bug and then personally eavesdrop on the apartment of a naive and politically suspect East German playwright called Georg Dreyman in order to detect suspicious activities or statements that could be used to prosecute him. The real reason for this mission, Wiesler soon learns, is that a corrupt government minister wants to eliminate Dreyman – King David-style – in order to make a move on the writer’s girlfriend, the comely actress Christa-Maria Sieland, who also happens to be a personal favorite of Wiesler. The more Wiesler learns about the couple and their ultra-cool intellectual lifestyle (complete with a luxurious bourgeois apartment, zillions of books, a vibrant social life, and plenty of hot sex), the more he sympathizes not only with the lovely Christa-Maria, but also with her lover, Dreyman. Then, after listening to Dreyman play a piece of music called “Sonata for a Good Man” on the piano and discovering the poems of Bertolt Brecht, Wiesler is spontaneously transformed into “a good man” himself and begins falsifying his reports to protect the couple from the Stasi and the minister. Tragic events ensue, both Christa-Maria and Wiesler sacrifice themselves, each in their own way, but Dreyman survives unharmed until reunification and dedicates his latest novel – appropriately entitled Sonata for a Good Man – to his invisible guardian angel. Not exactly a happy ending, but certainly a redemptive one that makes everyone feel really, really good about themselves.">
Stasi thug Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is miraculously transformed into a "good man" through the power of music...
What a moving story! It’s one part Sermon on the Mount, one part Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, and two parts Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (although without the ghosts!). Combined with high production values, first-rate acting, and an ultra-realistic depiction of East German dreariness, how could a film like this fail to tug at even the most cynical moviegoer’s heartstrings? It has all the makings of true greatness. In the words of film critic John Podhoretz, writing in The Weekly Standard, TLoO “joins Citizen Kane, no less, on the very short list of the most impressive debut films in the history of cinema.”
I have to admit that the movie did indeed impress me… for about two minutes. It was the same experience I had after finishing Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. When I finally closed the cover, I said to myself, “Gee, that was sure exciting. But… is it for real?”
No, Virginia, it’s not.
Was the Stasi really "all too human"?
How can I say for sure? As with The Da Vinci Code, a little research can yield big results. Beyond that, experience, as they say, is the great teacher, and my own experience in East Germany told me that something just wasn’t right about this movie. Several things, actually. No, make that just about everything.
The film's many inaccuracies and anachronisms are beside the point. My problem is that the entire premise is desperately, irreparably flawed. From all I could learn, there is virtually no evidence of Stasi agents ever having gone out of their way to help anyone. (The only case on record, a remotely similar occurrence in the 1950s, ended in the agent’s execution, the standard punishment for treason.) In any case, as Hubertus Knabe, the director of the Stasi memorial in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, has pointed out, it would have been technically impossible for a Stasi agent to “go rogue” in the way Wiesler does in this film. A single officer would never have been placed in charge of bugging a target’s apartment, doing the listening, transcribing what he heard, and then writing up the report. And that made good sense. The Stasi may have been cruel, but one thing you have to say for it is that it had a solid understanding of human nature. It knew the danger of “bourgeois” human empathy and painstakingly eliminated it. That is why operations of this sort were always divided up among a wide range of agents, most of whom had no idea whom they were spying on or even what they were looking for, and who in any case were under constant surveillance themselves. The “all too human” transformation of a professional sociopath like Wiesler into a “good man” through an intimate connection with his victims is simply not plausible.
The Stasi itself was not human according to any definition that can give us comfort today. Nor was the GDR, or socialism itself. Perhaps they were “just” and even "kind" in an abstract historical sense, but their conception of “humanity” was always instrumental. While everything in the GDR was done for “the best of intentions” (more on that below), the system itself allowed neither for personal “goodness” nor, indeed, for the blatant abuse of power for personal ends exhibited by the lascivious government minister in the movie. East Germany could - and did - provide a cozy nest for those who knew how to play the system. Anyone who left the strait and narrow path of conformity, however, soon learned that it was also a bureaucratic hell that systematically preyed on its own people for its own survival. It was a land of hundreds of thousands of informants where no one could trust anyone – by design. On this point the GDR was potentially even more evil than the slipshod Third Reich, which despite its genocidal criminality nevertheless exhibited gaps of authority where both the greatest of crimes and the most touching instances of human kindness could flourish alongside one another (as exemplified by the at least partially true story of "Schindler’s List” and the little-known Rosenstrasse protest in 1943).
Not so in the GDR, a strictly hierarchical society where the State claimed a monopoly on morality itself. Slavoj Zizek had this to say in his highly negative review of TLoO for In These Times: “[T]he horror that was inscribed into the very structure of the East German system is relegated to a mere personal whim. What’s lost is that the system would be no less terrifying without the minister’s personal corruption, even if it were run by only dedicated and ‘honest’ bureaucrats.”
So it wasn’t even possible to work for the Socialist Unity Party and be good. But… just what does it mean to be “good” anyway?
Do good music and good books make for good people?
Henckel von Donnersmarck conceived this movie after reading a quotation by Maxim Gorky recounting Lenin’s love of Beethoven’s Appassionata:“I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles!” Wrinkling up his eyes, Lenin smiled rather sadly, adding: “But I can't listen to music very often. It affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm—– what a hellishly difficult job!”
It is not just the self-congratulatory tone of this quotation that should have put Henckel von Donnersmarck on his guard. (The fact that Beethoven’s music emphatically did not make Lenin “sweet and silly” is a clear tip-off!) Anyone growing up in Germany, East or West, has to know that good music does not make for good people. Who is not aware that both SS leader Reinhard Heydrich and Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss were accomplished violinists, let alone that Hitler was Richard Wagner’s number one fan? The Nazis even set up orchestras in concentration camps! In what way did their love of music make them into “good men”?
That Mozart didn’t do much for the SS shouldn’t surprise us. After all, there’s no contradiction between murder and music. The technical term for this phenomenon is “compartmentalization.” We all do it on some level. Always have, always will.
If SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (1904-42) could terrorize and murder millions while enjoying Mozart's music, just imagine how much more mayhem he would have caused if he'd never even heard of Mozart!
Now a confused moviegoer in, say, Bloomington might come away from this film believing that East Germany had somehow banned Beethoven. Not so – few countries could boast as many world-class orchestras and operas as the GDR, and I frequently availed myself of heavily subsidized tickets to the Schauspielhaus and the State Opera, with little obvious benefit to my own “goodness.” And can reading Brecht poems make you more humane? East Germans had plenty of opportunity to find out. After all, the egregiously cynical Brecht, who loyally served the East German regime until his death in 1956 while maintaining an Austrian passport, a West German publisher, and a Swiss bank account, was one of their most celebrated poets, and his books were available in any bookshop (you certainly didn’t have to break into someone’s apartment and steal a copy, as Wiesler does in the film). But he did not only write about beauty and goodness, and in any case he could compartmentalize along with the best of them. Aside from his books and plays, Brecht is also remembered for this programmatic poem, “To Those Who Come After,” which he penned in 1939:
We, who wanted to prepare the ground for kindness
Were ourselves incapable
Of being kind.
Once the stage has been reached
Where human beings are
One another’s helpers
No one has ever expressed it better. Even if Wiesler had never read this particular poem, he certainly knew the sentiment. In fact, he lived it.
Of omelets and eggs
So what was the problem with the GDR and the Stasi anyway? Was it a shortage of Beethoven and Brecht, or merely a dearth of “good people” like Wiesler? While you wouldn’t know this from watching the movie, there was no lack of “good people” in the GDR. In fact, I’ve never encountered a more maudlin tribe of saints and prigs than in the old Democratic Republic. Literally everybody sought to impose their understanding of what was best for everyone else. They couldn’t help it. After all, East Germans were weaned on goodness. Socialism promised a world of cradle-to-grave employment, free education, state-administered health care, subsidized housing, and a completely predictable existence. What could possibly be better than that? And wasn’t such an omelet worth a few broken eggs?
It started early on. At about the same age when Midwestern ne'er-do-wells like me were chuckling over Holden Caulfield’s misadventures among the “phonies” of Pencey Prep and envying Thoreau’s attempt to live an authentic life in the woods outside Concord (“If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my house with a conscious design of doing good, I should run for my life”), East German school kids were being treated to the exploits of the Ukrainian Bolshevik Pavel Korchagin in Nikolai Ostrovsky’s 1932 Stalinist epic How the Steel Was Hardened. Slowly succumbing to his wounds in a clinic, the tough-as-nails protagonist proclaims:
The most valuable thing a man possesses is his life. It is given to him only once, and he must use it in such a way that uselessly spent years do not cause him excruciating regret later on, that the shame of an ignoble, futile past does not oppress him, and so that, with his dying breath, he can say: I consecrated my entire life, my entire strength, to the most glorious thing in the world – the struggle for the liberation of humanity.
On November 13, 1989, just a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stasi boss Erich Mielke delivered his final address to the East German parliament. When asked to justify his crimes against the East German people, he sputtered “But… I love all people,” reaping the derision of his bemused audience. And yet he meant it.
Stasi boss Erich Mielke (1907-2000). "He loved all people."
So there is no reason to doubt that Wiesler, who served “the shield and sword of the Party,” as the Stasi was called, was already a very good man – a true idealist. What Henckel von Donnersmarck would have him do is essentially become “bourgeois,” i.e. suddenly start to identify with the enemies of socialism - the al-Qaeda of his time - and this simply does not ring true. The issue of the Stasi’s “goodness” was much more subtly handled in a TV documentary made by an East German filmmaker in the early 1990s. She herself had been hauled off by the Stasi for supposedly subversive activities and held in prison for a number of years. After reunification she set out to track down all the informants (including her own husband) and Stasi agents who ruined her life. She finally identified the Stasi officer in charge of her case and traced him to his suburban bungalow. "Why did you do it?" she asks him outside his gate. “You have to understand,” he replies, “that for me, socialism was always like a beautiful woman with whom you are very much in love. She may be unpleasant at times, she may even do some bad things, but you love her all the same.”
That’s the Stasi mentality in a nutshell. In the Marxist-Leninist worldview, human beings were merely “human material” to be used as the building blocks of a better world, an endeavor that the Party regarded as “the most glorious thing in the world.” For a convinced Stasi man it would take more than a single sonata to transform this “material” into living, breathing souls. After all, it didn’t even work for Lenin!
Prefab apartments, flabby prostitutes
But what of Wiesler himself? The wicked Stasi spy we meet at the beginning of the movie not only has no soul, he has no life. One evening we follow him to his barren prefab high-rise flat in East Berlin, where he avails himself of the brief attentions of an astonishingly flabby-breasted prostitute. He has no wife, no family, no friends, no bridge club, no beer stein collection, not even a fuzzy housecat to keep him company. Why not? Did service to the Communist Party preclude a normal life? Not likely.
Back in the early 1990s I used to frequent a rather dowdy sauna in a side street off Frankfurter Allee in eastern Berlin. While I always made a point to go there on the “mixed” days, I ended up there once on a “gentlemen only” afternoon. In the sauna cabin I encountered a half dozen bulky, hirsute fellows enjoying a good sweat while they regaled each other with stories from the good old days. “...And on Women’s Day,” one of them chortled, “there was always an unusually high number of unusual events.” (“Unusual event” – Stasi language for an attempted escape over the Wall.) It was only later on that I discovered that this private sauna was on the grounds of the former Stasi headquarters building.
Now my sauna mates may have been cold-blooded, but they were certainly “normal” enough. In fact, Party Members and the Stasi were well known for their petty bourgeois lifestyles. Their special status gave them first dibs on automobiles (usually East German Wartburgs or Japanese Mazdas) and suburban bungalows. Most of them got married. They even sired children, bought housecats, collected beer steins, and took vacations. They were capable of immense personal generosity. They also tormented and occasionally murdered people. Here too, the Stasi was expert at compartmentalization. I suspect that an oddball like Wiesler would have been regarded as downright antisocial and as a threat to morale. In any case, you didn't have to be a lone wolf in order to be cruel.
Even Mielke had a mother.
Film and redemption
But why does any of this matter in the first place? Does the fact that ancient Romans didn't really use a thumbs-up and thumbs-down system to rule on life and death in the Coliseum make Gladiator any less exciting? Is Star Wars any less engaging because in reality you can't hear explosions in space? No, but movies like these are billed as pure entertainment. "They're just movies." So what if the armor and the physics are all wrong? TLoO, by contrast, seems to want to teach us a lasting lesson about recent history and the human condition. Most disturbingly for people like me, who still remember what the GDR was like, Henckel von Donnersmarck's uplifting fairy tale is being universally hailed as the movie about the East German experience. It's as if watching this single film - a sort of cinematic version of the Appassionata - can replace thoughtful reading and research on a dark period of recent history. And that has me worried.
So aside from the siren song of sentimentality, what makes a film about a “good” Stasi man so popular, both in Germany (where people really ought to know better) and in art houses all across America?
I think Anna Funder, the author of the book Stasiland, nailed it in her deeply critical review of TLoO in The Guardian:
The battle for the reputation of the Stasi men currently being waged in the media, the entertainment business, the courts, in personal intimidation of former victims and in demonstrations on the streets of Berlin cannot be understood without understanding that it is being waged with the Third Reich in the back of everyone's minds. The Stasi men are furiously fighting so as not to go down in history as the second lot of incontestable bogeymen thrown up by 20th-century Germany. And many Germans themselves are deeply uncomfortable about recognising the chilling inhumanity of this, the second dictatorship on their soil.
In fact, it’s all about redemption. You don’t have to be an East German to want to believe in the innate goodness of the Stasi. We all want to believe in it. Our cinemas and video rental shops are littered with films promising redemption of the damned through “one good person” or “one good deed.” These films range from The Long Walk Home (where one good white woman during the Montgomery Bus Boycott redeems white people everywhere) to Schindler’s List (where one corrupt yet noble Nazi businessman redeems the German people and all of humanity) to popcorn fare like Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (where literally billions die, but it’s really okay because one selfish and disaffected man reconnects with his kids). I suspect that we will one day have a movie about a kindly Gitmo torturer, although that may take a little longer.
And so, through the Christ-like sacrifice of Wiesler, the Stasi is redeemed, and so is East Germany and so are we all. The only trouble is that Wiesler didn’t help anyone. He couldn’t have.
It wouldn't have occurred to him to do so.
The fact is that Jim Crow and the Holocaust and the Stasi were not triumphs of humanity, but rather its utter defeat. Moral trainwrecks like the GDR show that humanity is not a given but rather an ongoing project. My point is that we don’t need feel-good movies about tyranny. Instead, we need to wake up to it, see it for what it is, and - with whatever means are available to us - stop it in its tracks. Not long ago and far away, but here and now, where things actually happen. Even when we are the bad guys. Come to think of it, especially when we are the bad guys. After all, the kind of world so skilfully depicted - and so poorly explained - in The Lives of Others is closer than we want to believe.
Don't take my word for it. If you want to take the leap yourself and see if Beethoven's Appassionata can put you on the road to genuine goodness, you can do so by clicking HERE!