"The Lives of Others," the German winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006, is a beautiful movie. What is it about Germans, that they can produce both the most extraordinary artwork and such brutal catastrophes?
The director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is my age, and already has incredible skill. His is a subtle movie that doesn't hit you over the head. Extreme violence is portrayed, but none of it physical. The torture shown is psychological, and maybe I'm relieved because I just saw "The Departed," but it was nice to see a quiet film, though an equally powerful one.
We don't tend to think about the gruesomeness of repression, how horrible it is not to be able to think freely. We have more obvious, genocidal terrors facing us. But "Lives" shows the terror of being an expressive person and not being able to expres yourself. The GDR created a poisonous regime in which you couldn't trust your neighbors. The Secret Police, the Stasi, employed 100,000 workers, yet 200,000 informants. They were obsessed with record-keeping. The Stasi protagonist in this movie, his sole job is to record every movement of a playwright and his girlfriend. We learn quickly that the only reason the playwright is to be watched is a high Stasi official would like hiim out of the way so the official can sleep with the playwright's girlfriend.
I lived in eastern Germany not long after the Wall came down. At the university where I was employed, there were "maintenance workers" whose sole job was to water 30 feet of potted plants. Since everyone had to be employed in the socialist state, meaningless jobs were created. This movie faithfully captures the dreariness of communism: the apartment complexes, the bland party headquarters, of course the Trabant cars in which so many were smuggled. The movie captures the split quite well. On the one hand the politburo types, on the other hand the gorgeous intellectuals. Sebastian Koch plays the lead intellectual, and by golly does he give George Clooney a run for his money.
Watching this film, I both missed my time in Berlin and loathed it. In one scene, the playwright carries groceries home in a wooden crate. Germans take their aversion to plastic bags and supermarket conveniences to an extreme. I almost fainted from fright when I stood in a checkout line and realized I had not brought my own bags. "Schnell, schnell," I heard. "Achtung."