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The Stasi on Our Minds

The Lives of Others

a film directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Das Leben der anderen: Filmbuch

by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 216 pp., Ä8.50 (paper)

One of Germany’s most singular achievements is to have associated itself so intimately in the world’s imagination with the darkest evils of the two worst political systems of the most murderous century in human history. The words “Nazi,” “SS,” and “Auschwitz” are already global synonyms for the deepest inhumanity of fascism. Now the word “Stasi” is becoming a default global synonym for the secret police terrors of communism. The worldwide success of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s deservedly Oscar- winning film The Lives of Others will strengthen that second link, building as it does on the preprogramming of our imaginations by the first. Nazi, Stasi: Germany’s festering half-rhyme.

It was not always thus. When I went to live in Berlin in the late 1970s, I was fascinated by the puzzle of how Nazi evil had engulfed this homeland of high culture. I set out to discover why the people of Weimar Berlin behaved as they did after Adolf Hitler came to power. One question above all obsessed me: What quality was it, what human strain, that made one person a dissident or resistance fighter and another a collaborator in state-organized crime, one a Claus von Stauffenberg, sacrificing his life in the attempt to assassinate Hitler, another an Albert Speer?

I soon discovered that the men and women living behind the Berlin Wall, in East Germany, were facing similar dilemmas in another German dictatorship, albeit with less physically murderous consequences. I could study that human conundrum not in dusty archives but in the history of the present. So I went to live in East Berlin and ended up writing a book about the Germans under the communist leader Erich Honecker, rather than under Adolf Hitler.1 As I traveled around the other Germany, I was again and again confronted with the fear of the Stasi. Walking back to the apartment of an actor who had just taken the lead role in a production of Goethe’s Faust, a friend whispered to me, “Watch out, Faust is working for the Stasi.” After my very critical account of communist East Germany appeared in West Germany, a British diplomat was summoned to receive an official protest from the East German foreign ministry (one of the nicest book reviews a political writer could ever hope for) and I was banned from reentering the country.

Yet this view of East Germany as another evil German dictatorship was by no means generally accepted in the West at that time. Even to suggest a Nazi–Stasi comparison was regarded in many parts of the Western left as outmoded, reactionary cold war hysteria, harmful to the spirit of détente. The Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele concluded in 1977 that the German Democratic Republic was “a presentable model of the kind of authoritarian welfare states which Eastern European nations have now become.” Even self-styled “realist” conservatives talked about communist East Germany in tones very different from those they adopt today. Back then, the word “Stasi” barely crossed their lips.

Two developments ended this chronic myopia. In 1989 the people of East Germany themselves finally rose up and denounced the Stasi as the epitome of their previous repression. That they often repressed at the same time—in the crypto-Freudian sense of the word “repression”—the memory of their own everyday compromises and personal responsibility for the stability of the communist regime was but the other side of the same coin. After 1990, the total takeover of the former East Germany by the Federal Republic meant that, unlike in all other post-communist states, there was no continuity from old to new security services and no hesitation about exposing the evils of the previous secret police state. Quite the reverse.

In the land of Martin Luther and Leopold von Ranke, driven by a distinctly Protestant passion to confront past sins, the forcefully stated wish of a few East German dissidents to expose the crimes of the regime, and the desire of many West Germans (especially those from the class of ‘68) not to repeat the mistakes made in covering up and forgetting the evils of Nazism after 1949, we saw an unprecedentedly swift, far-reaching, and systematic opening of the more than 110 miles of Stasi files. The second time around, forty years on, Germany was bent on getting its Vergangenheitsbewältigung, its past-beating, just right. Of course Russia’s KGB, the big brother of East Germany’s big brother, did nothing of the kind.

After some hesitation, I decided to go back and see if I had a Stasi file. I did. I read it and was deeply stirred by its minute-by-minute record of my past life: 325 pages of poisoned madeleine. Helped by the apparatus of historical enlightenment that Germany had erected, I was able to study in incomparable detail the apparatus of political intimidation that had produced this file. Then, working like a detective, I tracked down the acquaintances who had informed on me and the Stasi officers involved in my case. All but one agreed to talk. They told me their life stories, and explained how they had come to do what they had done. In every case, the story was understandable, all too understandable; human, all too human. I wrote a book about the whole experience, calling it The File.

It was therefore with particular interest that I recently sat down to watch The Lives of Others, this already celebrated film about the Stasi, made by a West German director who was just sixteen when the Berlin Wall came down. Set in the Orwellian year of 1984, it shows a dedicated Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler, conducting a full-scale surveillance operation on a playwright in good standing with the regime, Georg Dreyman, and his beautiful, highly strung actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland. As the case progresses, we see the Stasi captain becoming disillusioned with his task. He realizes that the whole operation has been set up simply to allow the culture minister, who is exploiting his position to extract sexual favors from the lovely Christa, to get his playwright rival out of his way. “Was it for this we joined up?” Wiesler asks his cynical superior, Colonel Anton Grubitz.

At the same time, he becomes curiously enchanted with what he hears through his headphones, connected to the bugs concealed behind the wallpaper of the playwright’s apartment: that rich world of literature, music, friendship, and tender sex, so different from his own desiccated, solitary life in a dreary tower-block, punctuated only by brief, mechanical relief between the outsize mutton thighs of a Stasi-commissioned prostitute. In his snooper’s hideaway in the attic of the apartment building, Wiesler sits transfixed by Dreyman’s rendition of a piano piece called “The Sonata of the Good Man”—a birthday present to the playwright from a dissident theater director who, banned by the culture minister from pursuing his vocation, subsequently commits suicide. Violating all the rules that he himself teaches at the Stasi’s own university, the secret watcher slips into the apartment and steals a volume of poems by Bertolt Brecht. Then we see him lying on a sofa, entranced by one of Brecht’s more elegiac verses.

In the role-reversing culmination of an intricate and gripping plot, the playwright’s girlfriend betrays him to the Stasi but the Stasi captain saves him from exposure and arrest—at the cost of his own subsequent career. He is reduced to steaming open letters in a Stasi cellar alongside a junior officer whom we see earlier telling a political joke in the ministry canteen and, in a chilling exchange, being asked for his name and rank by Colonel Grubitz.

After the Wall comes down, the playwright reads his Stasi file, works out from internal evidence how Wiesler—identified in the file as HGW XX/7—must have protected him, and writes a novel entitled, like the piece of music, The Sonata of the Good Man. The film ends with a cinematic haiku. The former Stasi man opens the newly published novel in the Karl Marx Bookshop in East Berlin—we are now in 1993—and discovers that it is dedicated to “HGW XX/7, in gratitude.” “Do you want it gift-wrapped?” asks the shop assistant. “No,” says Wiesler, “es ist für mich“—“it’s for me.” Punch line. End of story. Cut to credits.

Watching the film for the first time, I was powerfully affected. Yet I was also moved to object, from my own experience: “No! It was not really like that. This is all too highly colored, romantic, even melodramatic; in reality, it was all much grayer, more tawdry and banal.” The playwright, for example, in his smart brown corduroy suit and open-necked shirt, dresses, walks, and talks like a West German intellectual from Schwabing, a chic quarter of Munich, not an East German. Several details are also wrong. On everyday duty, Stasi officers would not have worn those smart dress uniforms, with polished knee-length leather boots, leather belts, and cavalry-style trousers. By contrast, the cadets in the Stasi university are shown in ordinary, student-type civilian clothes; they would have been in uniform. A Stasi surveillance team would have been most unlikely to install itself in the attic of the same building—a sure give-away to the residents, not all of whom could have been reliably silenced by the kind of chilling warning that Wiesler delivers to the playwright’s immediate neighbor across the stairwell: “One word to anyone and your Masha immediately loses her place to study medicine at university. Understood?”

Some of the language is also too high-flown, old-fashioned, and simply Western. A playwright who knew on which side his bread was buttered would never have used the West German word for blacklisting, Berufsverbot, in conversation with the culture minister. I never heard anyone in East Germany call a woman gnädige Frau, an old-fashioned term somewhere between “madam” and “my lady,” and a Stasi colonel would not have addressed Christa during an interrogation as gnädigste. I would bet my last Deutschmark that in 1984 a correspondent of the West German newsmagazine Der Spiegel would not have talked of Gesamtdeutschland.2 This strikes me as more the vocabulary of the uprooted German aristocracy among whom the director and writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck grew up—both of his parents fled from the eastern parts of the Reich at the end of the Second World War—than that of the real East Germany in 1984.

But these objections are in an important sense beside the point. The point is that this is a movie. It uses the syntax and conventions of Hollywood to convey to the widest possible audience some part of the truth about life under the Stasi, and the larger truths that experience revealed about human nature. It mixes historical fact (several of the Stasi locations are real and most of the terminology and tradecraft is accurate) with the ingredients of a fast-paced thriller and love story.

When I met von Donnersmarck in Oxford, where he studied politics, philosophy, and economics in the mid-1990s, I discussed my reservations with him. While fiercely defending the basic historical accuracy of the film, he immediately agreed that some details were deliberately altered for dramatic effect. Thus, he explained, if he had shown the Stasi cadets in uniform, no ordinary cinemagoer would have identified with them. But because he shows them (inaccurately) in student-type civilian dress and has one of them (implausibly) ask a naive question to the effect of “isn’t bullying people in interrogations wrong?,” the viewer can identify with them and is drawn into the story. He argued that in a movie the reality has always to be verdichtet, a word which means thickened, concentrated, intensified, but carries a verbal association with Dichtung, meaning poetry or, more broadly, fiction. Hence the elevated language (“I beg you, I beseech you”—ich flehe dich an—says the playwright at one point, asking his girlfriend not to submit again to the minister’s piggish lechery). Hence the luxuriant palette of rich greens, browns, and subtle grays in which the whole movie is shot, and the frankly operatic staging of Christa’s death.

  1. 1

    Und willst Du nicht mein Bruder sein…” Die DDR heute (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1981). Parts appeared in English in The Uses of Adversity: Essays on the Fate of Central Europe (Random House, 1989).

  2. 2

    A postwar term for Germany as a whole, sometimes intended to include not just East Germany but also the former German eastern territories, such as Silesia, given to Poland after 1945.

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