Last week I did something I rarely do, I watched a film during the day. Shock, horror! A sign I haven’t fully recovered from my mysterious lurgi. I finally got hold of The Lives of Others, which my friends recommended to me. I didn’t expect to like it because I couldn’t imagine a film capturing what it was like to be monitored, interrogated and have your life destroyed by the communist system. With assistance from its ‘little helpers’… One of them was the main protagonist. To my surprise, the film succeeds to convey a few important things, it has tragedy, betrayal, love, empathy, baseness, insecurity, idealism.
The countries of the Soviet empire shared some characteristics and talking to a Pole, East German or a Hungarian, we would find common experiences. Each country had its local ways too. For example, East German Stasi was known for its prolific recruitment of informants. Not that Poland and Czechoslovakia were far behind but still.
It is hard to believe that there was a time when people of a European country couldn’t travel at will. It is even harder to imagine that there were circumstances under which most people accepted this. I grew up in a place like that, and yet the absurdity of it hit me as the film brought the point and memory of such restrictions home. Knowing that you will never be able to visit most places on earth, that you have to live with and adjust to what is around you in ways that can destroy your will, identity and soul… because you have no choice. You can’t leave. You are stuck. For as long as you live.
I realised that there were different types of dissent. One has to wonder where all the rebellion in teenagers and natural contrarians went to? It had to go somewhere… Some lashed out at the system on their own and paid a heavy price. Flagged up, deprived of any meaningful future in the existing society and never safe, they learnt that rebellion is far from a romantic pursuit. Then there were the intellectuals, who found refuge in another -ism(s), whether it be nationalism or philosophy. The ones that seem to have survived best were those for whom faith was a source of moral strength. Faith provides support for the individual as well as for the community. It helps in times of persecution, when an individual has to face the regime alone and also when a community is brought together under pressure.
I also realised that although I know what it feels like to be a dissident – understanding the system you are fighting and the evil it causes, I don’t really know what it was like for the people who propped up the regime and served it in thousand little ways. How did they get through their lives? What about those who couldn’t delude themselves as their actions were beyond justification?
One of the main characters (there are three, I think) is a captain in the Stasi. Unwavering in his dedication to the regime – due to his idealism we are led to believe – and therefore incorruptible, persistent to the point of being inhumane, and lonely. An expert on breaking people and extracting
information from them about any ’subversive’ activity, he uses sleep
deprivation and justifies his brutality by pseudo-scientific
observations of human psychology. In short, nasty stuff. He is given the task of monitoring one of the leading poets and playwrights in the country. Not because of any serious doubt about his loyalty to the regime – he is a close friend of Margot Honecker, the wife of Erich Honecker. The plan is to ferret something that might discredit his protectors, to be used in internal party power plays. The writer lives with one of the county’s leading actresses. She is part of the reason for the monitoring and is a complex persona with her loyalties and strength of character unclear. It is worth pointing out here that anyone of any importance in a communist regime owes his or her success to the powers that be. Without exception.
During his assignment the Stasi captain gets involved in the couple’s lives, which is helped by his fascination with the actress. He starts covering up the poet’s activities, which turn anti-regime after the suicide of his close friend and colleague, who couldn’t take his career ban and isolation any longer. The plot thickens, people’s behaviour gets more complex and twisted but the central theme is a transformation of a grey, lonely bureaucrat without a life of his own into someone with sympathy. His own career is destroyed as a result of protecting the couple. The message of the film, I believe, is that someone who is ultimately driven by idealism and belief can commit great evil but also great good. It is those who have nothing to believe in that come out worst in the film.
How do I feel about that? I think that there weren’t many idealistic people working for the regime that was openly totalitarian for decades. When you joined the communist party, you were not doing it to build a utopia. At least not for other people. Perhaps for yourself but that was a delusion. And in the 1980s there really wasn’t much room for idealism. Also, being a Stasi expert on interrogation techniques does not exactly allow for much justification about one’s motivation. And yet, the character is somehow credible. People are more complex than any -ism would like them to be. Life is full of surprises and even in the darkest moments, human beings can rise to unexpected heights (and descend to unspeakable depths). And as they say in the Christian circles, it is about one soul at a time, each being important and unique. (I know the film has no religious dimension.) And this time it was about the soul of the Stasi captain. The final words of the film are like a blessing, a redemption of the individual who emerged from the grey nothingness of the state organs by his own will and actions.
But even with its human and mildly upbeat ending, the story cannot
outweigh the tragedy of the thousands, millions, who were not spared the communist brutality…if that was its purpose. Still, it is an excellent film well worth seeing.