Spoiler alert: While I tried very hard to not give the plot away, you may want to view the movie first before reading these thoughts.
Having heard nothing but rave reviews for The Lives of Others, I was delighted that NetFlix managed to get it into my home the day of its release, last Tuesday. Set in mid-1980s East Berlin, it is the story of a playwright who must decide what to do with his art, and the secret police who are trying to decide if he is a threat. The story focuses on one particularly devout member of the secret service, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, played with great restraint by Ulrich Mühe, who sadly died last month of stomach cancer. Wiesler is known as one of the greatest interrogators available to East Germany, such is his skill at getting confessions, we presume mostly from innocent people. Still, I was struck as to why this movie would have much relevance. Hadn’t the Berlin Wall fallen? Hadn’t most of the world come to rid of Communism? What benefit would follow this film, especially in the West?
Well, besides the fact that there remain many state sympathizers and out-and-out communists, even in Berlin, the movie works on a more complex personal level. Ultimately, it is about moral choices the characters are faced with. The background of a state-controlled society certainly serves to make their choices and consequences to follow more pronounced, and often puts the characters in irresolvable moral dilemmas. But the characters are endearing because of their potential for change, and they’re interesting because of their potential for evil. Wiesler, the spy who must decide if his personal liking for the author he is spying on will infringe on his job performance, is in a conundrum where he must decide if he will be true to himself or true to the state, no small decision in Eastern Germany. The author’s live-in girlfriend must decide if she will confess to the state police what she knows, or risk losing her high-profile acting career. It was with (perhaps) morbid fascination that I watched them struggle to make these decisions, knowing the no-win positions their moral courage, or lack thereof, has put them in.
But for those who are still convinced state-run societies are our best option, the movie explores the subtle ways obedience to the state is all-encompassing. To make a joke about your superiors is to risk severe consequences. For a woman to resist the advances of a party official could be career suicide. For an author to write anything that hints of disloyalty risks a loss to all privacy, and certainly his art. Yet the image we often get of Communism is less subtle, and probably, in that sense, less helpful. I often think, and rightfully so, of the Gulags in Siberia, of deserted farms in the Soviet Union, of mass murder, or the sheer brutality of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mau. The Lives of Others explores the way socialism in the west was mentally brutal, emotionally brutal, spiritually brutal far before it is ever physically brutal. It explores the way it forces people to turn on each other, to perform inhumanely selfish acts, the very acts Communism was supposed to rid society of. In fact, if nothing else, the movie should make clear that a socialist state encourages more greed, more hunger for power, and less cooperation than any free and virtuous society.
Much of its message transcends its era. In a society devoid of choices, a man makes a choice that goes against his training, against his profession, against his previous loyalty. And it is a powerful thing watching him make this choice, and quite a sympathetic moment. To watch his character evolve to the point where he understands right and wrong, on his own terms, shaped by his own value system, is to be reminded that our freedom of choice is not to be taken for granted. Communism, more than economic control even, is about killing the ability to think for oneself, to enact groupthink on a mass scale. Money, or the market, is merely the conduit by which we express our free thoughts; the GDR seemed hell-bent on never letting those thoughts occur.
A final thought on rebellion. The movie’s hero is an artist, an artist who must decide if he will, like his friends and mentor, use his art to speak against the inhumanity in his country. As I compared his moral struggle with artists of today, I had to wonder why it is that artists so often call rebellion art. Certainly, I was sympathetic to his cause, as he would use his art not to navel-gaze and advertise his personal philosophy, but instead show the devaluing nature of his state. But many of today’s artists strike me as rebelling against all the wrong things. And I am not merely overreacting to Piss Christ…I am talking about most of the modern art I see in film, music, or museums. What is “popular”, at least from what I have seen, is rarely a defense of virtue, of nobility, of honor. It is much more about deconstruction, about “speaking truth to power”, and championing Post-modern cynicism. It was immensely rewarding for me not only to cheer on the artist who made this film and brought new awareness to the dangers of Statism, but also its hero, who is an artist who takes his art beyond himself, a rarity in his profession.