The Lives of Others

Last Friday, Joanne and I went to see The Lives of Others. We left the cinema utterly amazed. It is an extraordinary film. The film literally took my breath away. I was so overwhelmed, I couldn't speak for a few minutes after the film. Early in the film, there is a conversation between Bruno Hempf, the East German minister of culture, and Georg Dreyman, a playwright caught between his creative integrity and the watchful eye of the East German regime. During their conversation, Hempf says, 'No matter how many times you write it in your plays, people don't change.' The rest of the film proves Hempf wrong, in more ways than one.

The next day, I opened the Review of the Saturday Guardian to read Anna Funder's article on the film. (If you haven't seen the film, I'd recommend waiting until you have before reading the article.) I was almost expecting an article like this. One that says that the film could never have happened. I expected an article like this to ruin the film for me. It didn't. Funder recognizes that the film is superb; however, she points out that the events portrayed the film could never have happened. The East German system of surveillance would not have allowed it to happen. A Stasi man would never have give the freedom that Wiesler was given in the film.

I have yet to read Funder's Stasiland, but it is now on my reading list. I'm appalled by the notion that a totalitarian system could be that complete, that successful. Strangely, I'm also comforted by the fact that the regime used fear to ensure the passivity and acceptance of its citizens. Stay with me here: I'm not a sadist, and I do approve of or condone the methods used in East Germany.

I've recently finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. The characters in Never Let Me Go are in a horrific situation. Entirely absent is any notion that this situation could be changed. The characters accept their horrific fate, of which they are fully aware, as destiny. They discuss it amongst themselves. They seek to defer it. In some cases, they even rave against it. But they never consider that they could avoid it, that they could change it. They simply accept that it is why they were created. They are completely human, yet completely oblivious to the possibility of change for the better.

This is what I mean when I say that I'm comforted by the fact that in East Germany, fear was used to keep the population in line. The regime was never able to win the population's hearts and minds. People wanted a better life, and there were those who fought for it.

Fear tactics are very persuasive, but they are also very obvious. They are an easy way to prevent opposition and to shut down rational debate. Not every one falls for it, though. Not everyone gives in. What frightens me is the idea that human beings can be taught to accept an unacceptable, inhumane situation as normal and natural.

Update For whatever reason, this post was attracting about 90% of the spam on this blog, so I'm closing comments on this post.