Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Lives of the Other Germans: beauty in the former German Democratic Republic

After countless months of delay, I got around to watching the recent German award-winning film, The Lives of Others. Relievedebtor had already seen it long ago and wrote a post examining the psychological aspects of Communist totalitarianism portrayed in the film. I was more interested in its depiction of life in East Germany, having lived there for a year not long after the country's reunification. I had already watched a more nostalgic treatment of the subject in Goodbye Lenin!, a somewhat humorous German film in which a young man tries to recreate the look and feel of living in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) so that her mother, who was a radically dedicated citizen to the Communist regime before falling into a coma during fall of the Berlin Wall, would not suffer a fatal nervous breakdown. It was overall an endearing movie which provided a gentle introduction to life in that era for those living outside of it. It did not attempt to examine deeply the long list of injustices that occured at the time, but was rather a sympathetic portrayal of the mundane lifestyle that East German citizens adjusted themselves to.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, the screenwriter and director of The Lives of Others chose to expose the more sinister side of that lifestyle while managing to make it an enjoyable viewing experience. As a sort of film-noir thriller, the story follows an attempt by the government-run secret police to spy on a nationally celebrated playwrite in order to convict him of treason. As the multiple levels of suspicion and betrayal takes a deep toll on the playwrite's close friends, the antagonist working for the secret police experiences a change in outlook in response to the hypocrisy of a political system to which he was deeply committed. Like a good suspense film, the plot quickens as it progresses and concludes tragically, followed by personal redemption as the passage of time helps heal the wounds. The acting was superb in that the actors endowed the characters with considerable credibility and emotion, while also emphasizing the mysterious reality of an individuals real intentions.

As a person who deals daily (with much futility) in tying together disparate elements into a moving whole, I am prone to pay special attention to a film's music, writing and especially its art direction. Gabriel Yared's musical score complemented the film's mood of clandestine insecurity, while the screenplay's references to great poets and the theatre gave the film a broader forum to examine the role of the human spirit under totalitarianism that transcends the more pedestrian political message that could have prevailed. As for the sets and the visual effects, there was a welcome stylized treatment of what could have easily been a typically dreary depiction of life behind the Iron Curtain. In the additional features on the DVD, Von Donnersmark reveals that the colors, textures, and objects used in the film were very carefully designed even while trying to achieve a high level of realism to East Berlin during the mid-1980s. Had he he been purely focused on portraying the urban environment as it actually was back those days, the result would be hard to watch for an extended period of time. Everything was gray, drab, decayed, and barren--in other words, lifeless. Try watching the Polish director Kristof Kieslowksi's film series Dekalog, where many of the stories take place in a typical social housing tower complex that are ubiquitous throughout the former Soviet Block during the 1980s. While the dialogue and visuals in the Dekalog films are thematically profound, the rich colors and tones of Kieslowski's subsequent post-Cold War films such as Blue, White and Red reinforce the cold and dull palette with which he was forced to work with in then communist Poland. As anybody who has traveled to cities under Soviet conrol will attest, cheerful urban environments are extremely rare, where one usually had to go the pre-communist parts of town to find some life and charm.

If there is one common criticism against The Lives of Others, it is that it doesn't go far enough in describing the former East German regime's extensiveness and brutality on its own citizens. The secret police, the Stasi, kept files on more than million people, and employed undercover informants that were often close friends of the suspects. It was a meticulous enterprise that controlled all lines of communication, whether by opening all mail contents to wiretapping most phone lines (phones were extremely rare back then, to the point that the house I lived in had no phone a few years after reunification and I was forced to use the lone phone booth next to the post office.) My host parents could hear someone else while calling a government bureaucrat for the simple request of getting a permit to build their house.

Today, one can now go to the Stasi archives and freely look up their file, but it is reported that only ten percent of those documented bothered to make an inquiry. One reason that has been suggested is that people don't want to find out who was betraying them. This may go far in explaining why the The Lives of Others was received with grudging discomfort as much as with critical enthusiasm. Germans have a hard enough time revisiting World War 2, and they are not near to genuinely coming to terms with what really went on in the German Democratic Republic. Social trust back then was almost close to non-existent, and opening up old wounds today could damage what little faith people have in their associations for the future. The temptation to airbrush such pervasive acts of suspicion, betrayal and coercion is quite great, and it is telling that no serious film account of the former East Germany was made until sixteen years after its end, and no less by an outsider to the German film industry. Von Donnersmark recounts how it was nearly impossible to find German-based funding and distribution for a 2 million dollar film that would become one of the most successful German films of all time.

The intent of the film was to demonstrate less the power of potitics than it was to portray the power of aesthetic beauty. It was a piece of music and the reading of classic poetry--not a political essay or speech-- that brought about a change in perspective in the protagonist. Experiencing art offers a reawakening of the soul, an affirmation of life in the midst of the most soul-crushing and lifeless of contexts that was the GDR. In my own personal experience, it worked the other way: the shabby and bleak towns and cities I had lived in and visited during my year abroad awakened in me an appreciation for the importance of beauty. It was precisely the overbearing ugliness of the concrete towers dotting the East German landscape that influenced me to seriously consider architecture as a career. The towers served as a reminder of the architectural vocation's crucial responsibility in endowing life and spirit to a place that transcends the local forces of economics and politics.

It was evident to me that much of the buildings built during the GDR era were an expression of political will and an obsession with quantities that would fulfill the promises of socialism. Vast swaths of cities and "new towns" had the look of being executed too quickly, without thoughtful examination about its impact on the landscape. It seemed that the building bureaucracy was more focused on providing guaranteed housing to all who wanted one, and planned urban spaces and amenities to ensure equal access to them, but overlooked the more significant aspect of quality. In particular to the neighborhoods comprised of "Neubau" (new built) apartment towers that became the standard issue urban planning solution throughout all of East Germany since late 50's, there was an overwhelming use of prefabrication and repetitive modules. Building from mass-produced concrete wall plates, or "plattenbau", would become the construction method of choice as it allowed for greater speed and standardization. The natural tradeoff was a decline in quality in all of its meanings, evidenced by shoddy materials, crude details and the lack of scale and proportion. Since material equality was the goal, it mattered less to design an environment that fostered opportunity and dynamicism than it was to deliver a mass produced commodity (eg. housing) that guaranteed the people's dependence on the state. Building one's own detached house was very difficult, since one was limited to about half-dozen floor plans approved by the state, and private contractor were very difficult to come by. It was not an environment that encouraged choice or an integrated mix of uses. Uniformity, sameness and the extinguishing of individuality was the rule.

For justifiable reasons, The Lives of Others did not go far enough in exposing the GDR's extinguishing of beauty in favor of politics. Von Donnersmark explains that it was very difficult to actually find a credible spot in all of Berlin that remained unchanged since the reunification. The film crew actually had to work hard to making the chosen locations look like it did back then, to the extent of painting over graffitti that would accumulate on a nightly basis. Even the protagonist's apartment was too stylish and clean compared to the ones I frequently visited. It's almost as if there was an inherent desire to spiff places up to make them comfortable to the audience.
This was no different from what I observed was going on in towns all throughout the neuen Bundeslander (the new federal states, as the former East Germany is now called) a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. House facades were being stripped and re-stuccoed, roofs were eplaced with more durable tiles, the brightest colors replacing the old gray palette on the outside, while old orangy and green wall papers were removed to brighten up the dank interiors. With meager resources, average people went about to restore life and pleasure into their homes and streets. They were making statements about their individuality once again, exercising (albeit with some reticence) their free choice.

Despite all the equality they were supposed to have enjoyed a few years before, the rush to bring color and freshness to their lives suggests that they weren't necessarily at ease back then. Inserting beauty in our surrounding seems to be a universal thing we humans do to make things feel whole again, and to expand our purpose in life beyond political ideology. To deny this fundamental need to people speaks of totalitarian socialism's inhumanity.

Note: You can read more about the architecture featured in The Lives of Others here.

1 comment:

Kelsey Glen said...

this was such a well-written post. i'm planning to write my masters thesis on political efficacy and urban design in eastern europe, and having lived in germany i found your analysis to be really interesting. x