I visited East-Berlin a few years after the wall came down, the moral stench still there, you could feel it, almost touch it, caked into ugly buildings everywhere. In Britain you practically need an act of Parliament to detain deeply suspicious, self-proclaimed enemies of the State beyond a couple of weeks. On the other hand, in Spain, a year ago, a friend of mine was arrested and detained for 6 months on unsubstantiated charges. Here the executive officer of the Crown didn’t need an act of Parliament or a court order: he was the judge, the court, the State. In some countries that’s how easy it is to put you away for a while. Habeas corpus and presumed innocence under the continental Napoleonic Code Civil a far cry from what anglo-saxon Common Law guarantees a citizen. Anyway, what makes it so astonishing is that a police-state like the former German Democratic Republic went through all these gymnastics, those sometimes deadly cat and mouse games, in order to nail down people critical of the Heimat's rulers. Why bother? Forget the trial. Round up the bastards and have them disappear, right? But we wouldn’t have had a quality story like Das leben der Anderen, The Lives of Others, unfold before our eyes, which would have been totally unacceptable.
Those who think me impatient may be right. It could be the reason I found film director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s magnificent opus a tad too long, with a handful of contrived scenes (the secret policeman getting ‘serviced’ by a prostitute or his accidentally running into Martina Gedeck brilliantly playing the morally pragmatic lover he’s been spying on, but adding little to the story) all of which could have been edited out. I also refer to bugged but too ‘western’ light-switches and a Karl Marx bookstore supposedly operating two years after re-unification or great but unlikely modern US jazz at an orthodox communist State Theatre party. But why quibble when at last a feature film comes along with a real story line, with calm, perfectly dramatized human action devoid of slick electronic aural/visual effects, richly deserving every honour it received?
I was drawn to the work through Charlie Rose’s PBS interview with the director. My only fear now that von Donnersmarck has put so much of himself into his creation, that he won’t be able to invent again. Conceiving, producing, writing and directing a film of this scope is a taxing business, taking nearly a decade out of this man’s life. Of course Orson Welles did as much with Citizen Kane, but how many in today’s super fluid society can get away with this, let alone twice or thrice and on a new quality theme each time. Totally unlike some insipid bovine sequel probably called Ruminator Vl, though at a certain point von Donnersmarck may well get inspired by the depth of a novel like The Applicant.
The story line here’s a thousand times better than the recent Goodbye Lenin, a silly flick also dealing with East Germany’s political transition. Von Donnersmarck’s film a worthy and noble one, revealing that even in a system where perfidy is total, some manage to hang on to their humanity and those who don’t, given the way they were abused and coerced, must be forgiven for stumbling. The only exception the greatest traitors of them all: those running the police state, not men of tough but caring conviction, but bullies who never gave a damn about socialism or their fellow-men. In fact no men at all, but immoral, self-moving pieces on an immense chessboard of power, loving to be feared and also not above violently stealing someone’s wife.
Besides the Berliner Ensemble ‘Brechtian’ setting, including the exceptional casting of very competent players whose physical exteriors perfectly match the strong yet fragile interiors we’re made to visit, it’s a stroke of genius to paint the central character, the playwright Dreyman not as a predictable would-be refugee pining for but prevented from reaching the rich West, but as one completely sincere in his love for East-Germany. We often forget that in the most repressive and hateful societies many remain genuinely patriotic, including master civil-servants like the Stasi secret police superintendent Wiesler, in the end much more human than dutiful, no Adolf Eichmann whatsoever, when he easily could have been. A material witness without a life of his own, who by spying on them became the unbeknownst member of their family and out of mute love and admiration for it put his own career at risk, never betraying anyone. In the end even making incriminating evidence against it disappear. Now that is daring sacrifice out of a most surprising corner and exquisitely played by the taciturn Ulrich Mühle, emotions repressed but a flickering pilot light of decency remaining evident, deep inside the man.
My only regret that Yared’s sublime background Sonata For A Good Man seemingly lasts only a minute, music the beauty of which not only moved the listening-in secret policeman to tears, but also me. And I will not tell you the full length of the story, about the rape of a girlfriend/wife by a Central Committee member abusing his power and the heart-breaking, forgiving embrace by a boyfriend/husband sensing what had just taken place. Or about the cause of all this official ire and desire--- what was seen as the theatre family’s subversive spirit needing to be cut down. Its subsequent collaboration on a magazine article dealing with East German suicide rates that appeared in the West and making the German Democratic Republic look bad, a perfect excuse for ‘corrective’ action against it. And yet we’re talking about an article easily written down in Hamburg, not physically having to be typed in the East then smuggled back out, produced on a typewriter smuggled in the other direction that subsequently could have been made to disappear. But again, we’d have no movie and so wouldn’t been privy to exposing a realm where betrayal was always on the State, people themselves having to supply honour, pride, compassion and forgiveness. Even when trust between man and wife got briefly destroyed in the face of official beastliness unable to accept even suicide as a form of protest. Calling it self-murder or even euphemistically frei-tot, free-death, nothing to do with them you see, and employing that word, frei, free, the real meaning of which otherwise so utterly suppressed.
The tension in this psycho-political drama is palpable. But the absolute beauty of it is that it manages to remain lyrical even if the denouement is too passive: the Dreyman character played phenomenally by Sebastian Koch at the very least speaking to his saviour secret policeman, or making some other type of human contact rather than distantly dedicating his new book to the officer’s Stasi code, having found out who he is, spotting him in the street, a sad, forgotten man once Germany got unified.
So beware of the cruel country where without exception typewriters and fonts are officially registered and tracked, in today’s terms computer programs and printers perhaps. Though now all ‘They’ would have to do is turn off the electricity, the other side of progress, like sitting in the wrong chair, when at the flick of a switch… one lives or one dies. Consider this beautiful movie a potent antidote.