01 May 2007

Film Review: Das Leben der Anderen

The German film Das Leben der Anderen won the best-foreign-language-film Oscar this year. It was directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, came out in 2006, and has recently arrived at British cinemas.
The film focuses on a Stasi man's surveillance of a writer in the GDR. It is mostly set in East Berlin in 1984 and the 'Others' of the title refers to people in the Stasi, as well as to citizens of the East in general. The film opens at the university in Potsdam where the secret policemen were trained. It goes on to show how banally unfulfilling their work could be and that they did not gain materially from their conformism.
The two main characters in the film are Wiesler who writes the Stasi files and Dreymann who writes plays. Three typewriters link their acts of writing: the typewriter Dreymann writes his plays on, the red-ink Western one he is given and hides under the floor, and the typewriter in the attic where Wiesler creates the reports of what he hears from the bugged flat beneath. Distinctions between these instances of writing is increasingly blurred: the record Wiesler makes of the life he is observing becomes an act of creative writing, whereas the creative professional Dreymann turns to journalism in the aftermath of his friend's suicide and the Western Spiegel magazine manipulates his writing into a piece of anti-GDR propaganda. The film does not make clear that the premise of the Spiegel headline - that the GDR had a high suicide rate - deletes the fact that West Berlin had the highest suicide rate in Europe at the time.
References to Brecht in the film highlight the idea that goodness is scarcely possible because of the social system. The apparently good, Dreymann and his actress girlfriend, become compromised morally. We are shown his alienation from Christa-Maria, and the way she drugs herself and betrays him is not outweighed by her remorse. This is a film which represents women as relatively slight and ignoble - a shame in what is otherwise a gripping and thought-provoking portrayal of the human struggle to be 'ein guter Mensch'.
What the film has to say about surveillance seems reassuring: human fallibility prevented men from entirely conforming to the rigours of the GDR secret police. Wiesler, to a Western mind the bad Stasi spook, is shown to do good. Towards the end of the film, we move forward to the time of the Wende and the aftermath of unification, when the files were opened to the public. The whole GDR era covered is fascinating for viewers who never saw it. Yet this is not a film about an entirely exotic society we cannot relate our present society to. The Stasi never survived long enough for the major technological advances in surveillance. Nowadays, surveillance is much more extensive and perhaps there is less room for the human acts of creativity which allowed Wiesler to shield his subject from interrogation.