American Views Abroad

Monday, March 27, 2006
A German movie released this past week, Das Leben der Anderen, is a compelling drama, a combined love story/political thriller of life in the former East Germany in 1984 ---- five years before the fall of the Berlin wall. The acting is superb, the street scenes of East Berlin --- run down, slightly decaying old houses vs. sterile lifeless post war Communist buildings in streets mostly devoid of traffic save for cars only the selected few had --- brought back eerie memories. The prison/interrogation room scenes give a glimpse into what made the system so terrifying for those lost in it. It is a film, as one German commented, that should be dubbed into English for a wider audience. Why? It brings close to home what happens when the system trains a handful of selected citizens to spy on and pry into the lives of other citizens without any protection of the law. It shows how political power that considers itself the law corrupts. It also sublimely details how an individual who is part of the system can, in this case through utter loneliness, become its victim.

A strict conformist to the regime, a captain in the East German secret police known as the Stasis is ordered to find the dirt on a successful play-writer/actress couple. The reason is neither political nor ideological: a minister with power lusts for the sexy actress. The machinery starts rolling and the captain, at first deeply suspicious of artists types just by looking at them, settles himself into a 12 hours routine secretly invading their lives in their wired up apartment. Strangely enough, the system, at least in this film, doesn't use taping machines. Instead, the captain listens to the conversations and makes notes of them, often presuming what is taking place. Slowly without realizing what's happening to himself, he begins to relate to them, a sort of Stockholm syndrome in reverse. He finds himself censuring what they are saying. He decides at the last minute not to relate important information to the border guards about a set-up smuggling that actually is a test to see if they are in a wired apartment. He finds himself crying when the writer plays the Good People's Sonata on the piano after a friend who opposed the regime kills himself. This death pushes the writer to take the step and write up a report, anonymously for Der Spiegel in the west, about how the East Germans are not releasing suicide statistics which are quite high. He does this on a smuggled-in-from-the-west typewriter so as not to be identified as the author. The captain knows where the typewriter is hidden in the apartment but does not reveal it to his bosses and, in the end, even manages to get it out of the apartment before its discovery. He loses his position and is condemned to unsealing letters for the next 20 years. The fall of the Berlin wall releases him into a world where, as a Stasis member, he can only find work dragging a shopping cart through Berlin handing out flyers. Years past and the writer happens to run into the minister and finally finds out that his intimate life was very well-known to him.

Here is where modern, open, democratic Germany shows its best side. The writer has the opportunity to take a very close look at all the files the Stasis had on him. To his utter amazement he is practically congratulated on having so many files. There, for the first time, he realizes just what happened and is even able to find out who the captain is. He tracks him down, but decides not to approach him. Instead, he writes a book. Title: The Good People's Sonata. Dedication: HGW XX/7, the captain's code name.

Germany has produced some very good films recently. This, however, is the first one that confronts the past as it was in East Germany and it is well-worth viewing. More information in German at

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