Editor’s Pick
JULY 23, 2009 12:51PM

Why I hate "The Lives of Others"

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 The Lives of Others


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.

Reinhard Heydrich 

 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.

You however
Once the stage has been reached
Where human beings are
One another’s helpers
Consider us
With forbearance.

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.

 Erich Mielke

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!


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God totally agree! We don't need feel good movies about tyranny. Can you say Propaganda?
I never really considered the film a "feel good" one, but your point is well taken. I, too, thought the motivation of the official who wanted the actress girlfriend for himself did not ring true, nor did the implication that Brecht was "forbidden fruit", since I knew Brecht was one of the regime's favorites.

Still, I enjoyed the film, and did not dwell on the issues you raise. But you are correct, that if one is to use this film as an historical portrayal of what life was like in the GDR, then you are making a mistake. It's a movie, a vehicle for entertainment. "Gone With the Wind" is not an historical picture of the Civil War era South, nor is TLoO that for Cold War East Germany.
Fair enough. An excellent critique.
great review. (although I admit I liked the movie...I saw it *only* as a fairytale as most movies in that genre)...

but I had a similar reaction to the kate winslet oscar vehicle The Reader. It actually uses a very similar trope the one about art saving someone's soul (someone who happened to cold bloodedly murder a large number of Jewish people by letting them burn to death in a church, in addition to working at auschwitz...but these are just small character background details in the film that they never actually show you in flashback so you just know it without seeing it, which is convenient, emotionally speaking) but art saves her. yes, reading silly novels saves her.

At least in the book of the same name, she read haulocast memoirs which made her empathize with her victims, but in the film I guess they thought this would be a little too made for t.v. so maybe the sonata for a good man would have saved her. instead she is an illiterate person who learns how to read. (and what a handy metaphor...as if reading automatically changes someone's moral character...the nazis were not, as a rule, an illiterate group, but the film ignores that fact).

As audience members, I think we want to believe art has this effect on people and we enjoy seeing this happen on screen. Even though, as you say, it's not really a given that it ever does.

(also on another note as far as schindler's list goes...yes it's based on a real man so at least there is that...but I know people who believe that film is propagandistic in its attempt to establish the good businessman as a hero and saver of Jewish citizens when in fact most good businessmen of the time were happy to let their corporations use concentration camp slave labor as part of their profits...the money large international corporations earned through slave labor at concentration camps has never been repaid to the victims and most of these good business men were lucky enough never to have to answer for their crimes at nurenberg.)

sorry this comment is long, but this is interesting food for thought.
ps. thanks for Beethoven's Appassionata . I do feel like I'm becoming a better human being with each note. =) (but it is very pretty!)
p.s. weren't there actual orchestras played at auswitz? just remembering that fact and thinking that orchestra music alone might not be enough.

(although I'm in an argument with myself over this question of art and morality all the time because good art I would like to think can make us better humans....and sometimes it does...)
I'm glad you enjoyed the music!

You're right on the money regarding "Schindler's List"! I could write an extended rant about the movie, and yet I do concede that there is at least some truth to it, so I see no reason to dance around on it. Overall, it's probably as good as it could be. However, I am concerned about the uses it has been put to. Here in Germany, it topped at least one list of the best films of all time, and thousands of school kids were marched to the cinemas to watch it. If you're German, it really is a great movie, not least because it shows one really good German who, by risking his own life, redeems everyone else. At least, that's what people seem to be taking away from the movie, but it's certainly not what I take away from the Third Reich!

Personally, I much preferred "Downfall" and "The Baader-Meinhof Complex," which genuinely try to "tell it like it was" and have no such pretentions.
alan, you must have seen the (translated title) the dirty girl...that film really stuck with me as what it's like in times like those to tell the truth and to be shunned for it. also based on a true historical figure (but probably a less popular film in Germany I'd imagine).

Yes, there were orchestras in Auschwitz and other camps, made up of largely Jewish musicians, who "played for time" before they themselves were murdered. The purpose was to calm the inmates down and drown out the sounds of torture and execution rather than to make them into "better people."

I haven't gone to see "The Reader," largely because I already sensed what you describe in your message. The notion of reading making you better is an intriguing one. But books do have the potential to make you confused and unhappy, which is why they are banned and burned in Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."
An excellent and long overdue review. It seems the tyranny of Hollywood memes has infected European filmmaking. Giving a movie "heart" or "hope" as a device for drawing in an audience and leaving them with a warm fuzzy, in the face of horrible history, continues apace in America with the "alternative" Gus Van Sant film, Milk.
You sent chills down my spine with:

"I suspect that we will one day have a movie about a kindly Gitmo torturer, although that may take a little longer."

Excellent commentary and post. I am just sorry we have to continuously remind ourselves that viciousness is just that, no matter how bland the exterior, because we keep finding new ways to be cruel to each other, it would appear.
Alan -

Thanks for the comprehensive review. I'd be curious to know what you think of Volker Schlondorff's film, The Legend of Rita. (I like the English version of the title with the pun on "legend" as a spy's cover story and the Bonnie and Clyde-type fable of West German terrorists modeled on Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof.)

It's been a while since I saw it, but I remember a lower-ranking Stasi officer assigned to help Rita fit in to socialist East Germany after she flees the West, who admires her ideological commitment while his superior is willing to turn her over to the new authorities after the GDR collapses.

I thought "The Story of Rita" was excellent. The joke there is that this West German leftist extremist fulls hook, line and sinker for the petty bourgeois paradise that was the GDR while her work colleagues wonder if she's lost her mind. Particularly interesting is her professional relationship with her extremely conventional Stasi guidance officer, who has a family and - typically - regularly entertains her at his suburban bungalow.

There are some other excellent films on the subject too, which I neglected to mention for space considerations: Margarete von Trotta's "The Promise" and of course the incomparable "Goodbye Lenin," a bitter sweet tale that leads the pretenses of the GDR ad absurdum. While a fantastical story, "Lenin" is much more "realistic" and ultimately devastating than TLoO.
I couldn't watch the whole thing so I will definitely take your word for it.

I saw a documentary on PBS about the holocaust. It was about an artist community in Poland where sadly but inevitably the whole population perished but what they left behind was amazing, original plays, music, paintings. In that aspect it was very moving, but to think that German soldiers stood around and watched these people create in the face of certain death and then became the agents of their demise was incomprehensible. This was a documentary though, so I'm off topic. I didn't finish the Lives of Others, but it was so bleak that to think it could have pulled off a happy or redemptive ending makes little sense.

I have not watched The Reader or any of the other films you mention other than Schindler's List (but I do love To Kill a Mockingbird, not exactly redemptive but Greg Peck stands up for black man--you know) because just not that interesting. You make some great points. I do like my documentaries on PBS.
What a thoughtful and wonderful piece. You know I am one of those people who really enjoyed TLoO and have lent my copy to many friends. I also have this utter fascination with Russian history, communism and totalitarianism not because I find them charming but rather when you think about it in terms of governance, humanity, psychology, the human condition and individuals natural striving it's complexity and ability to preserve itself truly confounds me.

When I hear ignorant talking heads on TV spouting off that government run healthcare or Obama's policies are socialist, it makes me cringe. These people have no idea what the hell they are talking about. It is irresponsible and entirely dismissive of the fact that approximately 100 million people lost their lives in the last century all for the promise of a "glorious Communist future".

You know as the saying goes, history which is forgotten is more likely to be repeated.

Thank you so much for sharing this on here!

Thanks for the kind comments and I certainly agree with your comments on the grotesqueness of tossing around words like "socialism" and "fascism" to make cheap political points. If 100 million or however many people had to die for "socialism," I'd like to think they died for a greater cause than just to shoot down Obama's latest healthcare reform proposal.

I guess that's why Henckel von Donnersmarck gets on my case. I'd hate to think all that suffering took place just so some film director can make a really cloying feel-good movie about it and cash in on the American film market. I don't think that was his intention, but that's fast becoming the result.

Of course, there are rumors of an American version coming out one of these days...
Thanks for saving me the trouble.

I've always been fascinated by life under communism and have read extensively on the Russian revolution. Lenin viewed personal life as a weakness and relentlessly drove himself towards his "ideals". "Ideal" meaning no one having any sort of life and the state reaching its tentacles into all behavior.

I've seen and loved the films of Andrzej Wajda, telling of life in Poland under the Communist authorities (realizing, of course, he could only go so far). But once having displayed a person's mentality, you can guess the rest.

And I'll never forget the soullessness of the commander when a woman caught up in one of Stalin's purges stated quite simply to him she had done nothing wrong and saw no reason to be taken in. He replied he knew she'd done nothing wrong, but that he had to make quota. The human condition indeed.
I didn't get the redemptive part either, and few movies manage to get the history right. I enjoyed the film but preferred Downfall and Goodbye Lenin. I am also glad to hear that someone else disliked Schindler's List as much as I did. I nearly lost my job over a review of it.
I admire this exhaustive essay, but one needn't write nearly 4000 words to remind people that romantic approaches to totalitarianism and its malcontents are not historical documents. Anyone who thinks that the movie is a history lesson is capable of only the most superficial experience of media. They might also mistake "Gandhi" for a history lesson about the fall of the British Empire, or "Gone with the Wind" for a history lesson about the American Civil War. There is nothing wrong with using late East Germany as the setting of a romance, which is what "The Lives of Others" is.
I'd like to think of TLoO as a mere "romance," but I fear that it has pretty much become the template for what most people around the world think they know about the GDR. As not only a history writer/instructor but also as an eyewitness, this disturbs me. In that sense your comparison to "Gone With the Wind" is really quite apt. It still influences the way many of us regard the Old South and slavery. I imagine the NAACP had a thing or two to say about that back in 1939, and that's pretty much how I feel about TLoO today.
As one who fell hook, line and sinker for this film, and who also knows next to nothing about life under the Stasi (other than what I've seen in movies), I appreciate hearing the perspective of an actual Berliner. And I'm glad I don't have to stop liking the marvelous "Goodbye, Lenin."
I'm curious, why to you think TLoO is such a particular favorite of conservatives? Wouldn't they, of all critics, prefer films that show communism in the worst possible light?
Also, have you seen Istan Szabo's "Taking Sides," about German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who stuck around to serenade Hitler during the war?
Excellent post.
Why do (Neo-)Conservatives like "The Lives of Others" so much? I suspect it has to do with the film's profoundly Christian message and the magical thinking it's premised on. Complex issues (e.g. how a sophisticated society could twice succumb to a totalitarian regime) are glossed over and miraculous transformations are achieved through the application of ingeniously simple methods (in this instance, listening to classical music). Just apply a one-size-fits-all solution, and thorny issues are turned into roses. At no point do we have to deal with the messy details of Wiesler's personal history and motivation. Believe me, it wouldn't have been pretty - but it would have made for a much better film. That's the film I wanted to see, which explains my dismay at Henckel von Donnersmarck's heavy-handedness in pushing an easy solution to an intractable problem.

I mentioned the parallels to Dickens' wonderful "Christmas Carol." Dickens' tale is infinitely more plausible in psychological terms, and yet his vision is also profoundly conservative, i.e. "if capitalists like Scrooge would just be more generous, then the world would be a better place." That's a nice sentiment, but hardly realistic since capitalists obviously only get to where they are by being capitalists in the first place. The same goes for Stasi officers, who were Stasi officers for a reason, after all.

Incidentally, I have talked with plenty of former communists since reunification and only one of them regrets his involvement in the movement. Everyone else is either utterly unrepentant or has simply moved on. In a society where practically nobody wants to confront the recent past, a movie like this fulfills a clear need.
It's gratifying that there are other people in this world who don't think "The Lives of Others" and "Schindler's List" are the greatest movies ever made. Rated for plain speaking.
I share your scepticism about this movie. It does not seem to be considered as a possibility at all that the East German regime actually believed in what they were doing. The whole horny-minister part of the plot seems to suggest that no one, surely, would ever bug people because they were ardent communists looking for enemies of the state? It's a lot like all those movies and books which tell us that Hitler tricked nice Germans into becoming nasty anti-semites, and that most Germans had no idea that Jews were being killed by their government, because none of the thousands of soldiers, government officials, railway workers etc. involved ever said a word about what was going on. Well, I don't buy it. It's too good to be true.

I was reminded of TLoO recently when I watched the American movie Rendition. Once again, we 're supposed to feel uplifted because the CIA agent "redeems" himself in the end by releasing the prisoner he has witnessed being tortured. Well, I'm sorry, but if you stand idly by while a suspect is tortured, letting him go after it has become clear he is entirely innocent does not count as redemption. It is quite litterally the least you can do, and nothing to boast about.
@Token Tarheel:

You wrote: Officianados? Normally I begrudge the occasional typo and let 'em slide, but your essay's overall officious tone coupled with the fact that I am somewhat of an aficionado of properly written English, well, I just couldn't help myself this time.

It is possible that you are using the first definition of Merriam-Webster's "begrudge" which is "to give or concede reluctantly or with displeasure." If that is the case, making your first sentence a compound sentence is proper, but still a little confusing. I would have expected the word "but" instead of "and" since this implies that you disapprove, BUT you let it slide.

However, your description of Mr. Nothnagle's post as "officious" makes no sense. The word "officious" describes something that is unwanted, meddlesome or unrequested. None of those words apply to this posting. Open Salon, by its very existence, requests postings or any all types, unless they violate the very few laws or rules that restrict free speech. This post has no violations. The words "unwanted" or "meddlesome" would only apply if he were responding to another post in a style the original poster objected to.

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.
Haven't seen the film, but I enjoyed your absorbing analysis. I could complain that you ask too much of a movie, but I have similar feelings about "Gone With the Wind," currently number six on the AFI's list of the greatest films of all time. As a native of Atlanta, I have often been troubled by the fact that our most recognizable contribution to cinema (and literature to some extent) is an unabashed romance and the "the last great posthumous victory of the Confederacy," as Pat Conroy once put it. The ideas of redemption expressed in the film and Margaret Mitchell's novel have since become so much of a part of Atlanta's self-image that people ignore the tragic history is glosses over. When movies pretend to represent historical realities and reduce them to self-serving narratives that are easy to digest, this is what you get.
I loved this movie. Still do. Whether fantasy, romance or outright lie. I found it to me one of the most well-acted, finely crafted pieces of FICTION I have recently seen on screen.

BTW...my husband also lived in East Berlin...for 6 years, shortly after the fall of the wall. He liked the film too, and is not given to flights of fancy or romantic drivel.

To each his own.

By the way, flyover52..."officious" can also mean: high handed; overbearing; self-important; impertinent. I do believe this is the light in which the previous usage was meant.
Popular reactions to "The Lives of Others" have been extremely varied and are worthy of more analysis than I could provide here. Most people in Germany love it, but a sizable minority (particularly among actual victims of the Stasi) go ballistic whenever they hear it mentioned. As a matter of fact, the friend who took me to see the movie at a Potsdam cinema had himself been a dissident under the regime and suffered terribly at the hands of the Stasi (it seems that at one point half of his friends were filing informant reports about him). He adored the film and had made it his mission to take as many people to see it as possible. When we came out of the theater and I asked him, "Did something like this story ever happen?" his response was, "If it didn't, it should have."

Fair enough. He had been traumatized by the East German regime, but he is also a devout Christian and this film helped him to restore some of his lost faith in basic human goodness. My own experience was different: I was Stasi-bait myself while I lived in the GDR, and they kept a file on me as thick as the Oxford English Dictionary, but I suffered nothing aside from a few panic attacks and don't feel any need for redemption. As I stated in my essay, I watched the film as an eyewitness, a scholar, and a history instructor, and found it wanting in every respect. But more than anything else, I was disappointed: the first scenes are utterly brilliant, but I soon felt the iron hand of the director shoving me towards a foregone conclusion. The horny government minister and the "conversion through music" were deal-breakers for me. A great opportunity was lost here, and that makes me more sad than angry.

Regarding "conversion through music": I thought this notion was remarkably well presented in Polanski's 2002 film "The Pianist," where a music-loving Nazi officer in Warsaw spontaneously (and rather arbitrarily) agrees to hide a fugitive Jewish pianist out of respect for his art. This true story is also an "all-too-human" moment, but it is more creepy than "uplifting" and in my mind it makes a much more convincing statement on the human condition.
I get it! Thanks for responding.
I suppose I will have to watch this movie again. I have seen it twice, but never caught your "converted by music" meme. I felt the guy was moving in that direction for a long time.

It was awakening empathy, "fellow feeling" that he began to have. Their love-making made him want intimacy...but he couldn't buy it with a prostitute. (And I find YOUR description of her as ugly as the scene!) He saw the friends this man had. He saw the woman and her talent. He listened to their daily lives...and something awakened in him. I didn't feel that it was one musical piece but an avalanche of yearning that "made him" what he was, or ended up being.

As for his living conditions being "unrealistic"...I suppose I can choose to take your word for it, or not. I felt drawn, not pushed by the director as well...but then, this is just so superior a movie to the drivel that Hollywood puts out...

Is there any "uplifting" film of this variety that you find "real"...or are you just naturally a cynic?
Oh yes, the idea of the dull-witted Stasi man being inspired by the intimacy and high culture displayed by the intellectual couple seems appealing on the surface. I want to like it. My trouble with it is that the premise is rather condescending - a sort of replay of the fat, pimply boy getting all impressed by the really cool kids at school. And yet, this might well have been possible, I mean the cultivated bourgeois lifestyle of this refined couple living in their privileged bubble has a certain magnetism (I used to know people like that too, after all, and it was truly a wonderful existence). The trouble is that the largely proletarian Stasi regarded itself as an elite as well, i.e. there's a definite class component at work here, which made Wiesler's contempt for Dreyman at the movie's start utterly convincing and his transformation into a good bourgeois man downright baffling. Let's remember that he's a professional thug, a truly vicious man who has made a career out of destroying naive middle class people like this on a routine basis. But I digress.

Regarding historical accuracy (as if this mattered to anyone watching the movie!), the fact is that the honeymoon between the Communist Party and its intellectuals pretty much ended with the expatriation of the poet Wolf Biermann in 1976, which means that by 1984 a guy like Dreyman would have to be either an opportunist or a fool and thus something less admirable than the sympathetic character presented in the film. I'll go so far as to say that a guy who is as compromised at that is not all that different from Wiesler himself. In any case, they're both working on the same team. By this time, too, the Stasi probably would not have given Dreyman much trouble since he was much more valuable to them as a basically loyal subject and a successful author earning the state Western currency than as a victim. Even if he did write an illegal article for a West German magazine, why persecute him and risk the bad press? That's where the randy minister appears as a sort of anachronistic deus ex machina to square this circle. It just doesn't add up. The story would have worked much better in the wild and woolly Stalinist years or, indeed, in the Third Reich, as I suggest in my essay.

Do I like any "uplifting" movies? Sure, I like to be uplifted as much as anyone else, and I enjoy seeing transformation on screen. It's called "character development," but I expect the character to go the distance first. "A Christmas Carol" is one of my favorite stories. Of course it's a fairy tale and has next to nothing to do with real Victorian England, but the psychology is pretty accurate. Maybe if Henckel von Donnersmarck had included a couple of ghosts we might have discovered what made scary people like Wiesler tick. Instead, we just learn what makes Henckel von Donnersmarck tick and I didn't find it to be particularly remarkable.
Great & informative reading ! Thank you !
Personally, I did not see the movie as being a representative dip into the East Berlin experience but rather felt the contrast between the icy greyness of a stiff and overwhelming system and a window that suddenly pops open and gives a glimpse (or, in this case, an eavesdrop) at a relative yet vivid freedom of thought. Many people would slam the window shut and refuse change because it hurts too much to realize what you lost so many years at. So at a, say, metaphorical level, I saw the movie as an invitation to step through that window, even if that causes grief for having been such a fool serving so many other fools until now. The music seems less the trigger for that conversion than the wrapper for the tears cried on dilapidated years. This is a universal situation. The GDR is more of a dramatic setting, almost a pretext, whose abstractness seems underscored by the surreal contrast between the lifelessness of one side and the liveliness of the other. But of course this is a very personal interpretation.
Many people went enthusiastic about the movie AFTER it received an Academy award. The strongest dissonance that hit me was that Dreymann did not behave as an Estern German at all, he had all the characteristics of a Westerner. As of verbal and body language, his flat seemed like a Western Germany enclave.