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The Stasi on Our Minds

During a subsequent question-and-answer session in an Oxford cinema the director mentioned, in separate answers, two films that he admired: Claude Lanzmann’s harrowing Holocaust documentary, Shoah, and Anthony Minghella’s version of The Talented Mr. Ripley—a thriller involving murder and stolen identity—which he singled out because “it doesn’t bore me, and for that I’m very grateful.” In The Lives of Others, Shoah meets The Talented Mr. Ripley. Von Donnersmarck does care about the historical facts, but he’s even more concerned not to bore us. And for that we are grateful. It is just because he is not an East German survivor but a fresh, cosmopolitan child of the Americanized West, a privileged Wessi down to the carefully unbuttoned tips of his pink button-down shirt, fluent in American-accented English and the universal language of Hollywood, that he is able to translate the East German experience into an idiom that catches the imagination of the world.

One of the finest film critics writing today, Anthony Lane, concludes his admiring review in The New Yorker by adapting Wiesler’s punch line: Es ist für mich. You might think that the film is aimed solely at modern Germans, Lane writes, but it’s not: Es ist für uns—it’s for us. He may be more right than he knows. The Lives of Others is a film very much intended for others. Like so much else made in Germany, it is designed to be exportable. Among its ideal foreign consumers are, precisely, Lane’s “us”—the readers of The New Yorker. Or, indeed, those of The New York Review.

Does anything essential get lost in this translation? The small inaccuracies and implausibilities are, on balance, justifiable artistic license, allowing a deeper truth to be conveyed. It does, however, lose something important: the sense of what Hannah Arendt famously called the banality of evil—and nowhere was evil more banal than in the net-curtained, plastic-wood cabins and caravans of the German Democratic Republic. Yet that is extraordinarily difficult to recreate, certainly for a wider audience, precisely because it was so banal, so unremittingly, mind-numbingly boring. (Or could a great screenwriter and director create a nonboring film about boredom? I lay down the challenge here.)

One of the movie’s central claims remains troubling. This is the idea, clearly implied in the ending, that the Stasi captain is the “good man” of the sonata. Now I have heard of Stasi informers who ended up protecting those they were informing on. I know of full-time Stasi operatives who became disillusioned, especially during the 1980s. And in many hours of talking to former Stasi officers, I never met a single one who I felt to be, simply and plainly, an evil man. Weak, blinkered, opportunistic, self-deceiving, yes; men who did evil things, most certainly; but always I glimpsed in them the remnants of what might have been, the good that could have grown in other circumstances.

Wiesler’s own conversion, as shown to us in the film, seems implausibly rapid and not fully convincing—despite a wonderfully enigmatic performance by the East German actor Ulrich Mühe. It would take more than the odd sonata and Brecht poem to thaw the driven puritan we are shown at the beginning. I find it interesting that in a contribution to the accompanying book (which also contains the original screenplay), the film’s historical adviser, Manfred Wilke, gives historical corroboration for many aspects of the film, but does not offer a single documented instance of a Stasi officer behaving in this way—and getting away with it. Instead he cites two cases of disaffected officers, a major in 1979 and a captain in 1981, both of whom were condemned to death and executed. Yet I’m prepared to accept that such a conversion and cover-up was just about within the realms of possibility. (If Colonel Grubitz had exposed Wiesler, he would have compromised himself.)

So Wiesler did one good thing, to set against the countless bad ones he had done before. But to leap from this to the notion that he was “a good man” is an artistic exaggeration—a Verdichtung—too far. In negotiating the treacherous moral maze of evaluating how people behave under dictatorships, there are two characteristic mistakes. One is the simplistic, black-and-white, Manichaean division into good guys and bad guys: X was an informer, so he must have been all bad, Y was a dissident, so she must have been all good. Anyone who has ever lived in such circumstances knows how much more complicated things are. The other, equal but opposite mistake is a moral relativism that ends up blurring the distinction between perpetrator and victim. This kind of moral relativism is frequently to be encountered among liberal-minded Westerners—and, not accidentally, often those who at the time viewed East Germany through rose-tinted spectacles. It is usually accompanied by the argument that the Stasi files cannot be trusted at all: die Akten lügen, the files lie. Von Donnersmarck himself is very far from this relativism, but his film steers uncomfortably close to it. Its “good man” is a Stasi captain who falsifies his reports to protect an artist.

This is a fault, but not a fatal one. The net effect of The Lives of Others will not, after all, be to unleash a wave of worldwide sympathy for former Stasi officers. It will be to bring home the horrors of that system, in a stylized fashion, to viewers who would have known little or nothing about them before. And this in a memorable, well-made movie. So it deserved the Oscar.

According to a report in Der Spiegel, when an emotional Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck finally arrived at a late-night German celebration following the award ceremony, he exclaimed, brandishing his Oscar statuette in the air, Wir sind Weltmeister! The phrase implies not masters of the world but world champions (as in soccer) or world masters (as in golf), with subsidiary connotations of artistic mastery, as in Meistersinger or Meisterwerk. But in what, exactly, are the Germans world masters? In soccer, almost. Their fine performance in last year’s World Cup produced scenes—unusual for postwar West Germany—of frankly patriotic celebration, and this was probably what von Donnersmarck had in mind. In the export business, certainly, whether it be BMWs to Britain, machine tools to Iran, assembly lines to China, or, just occasionally, films. The Lives of Others has already netted over $23 million worldwide—a nice little export earner for the German economy.

Some might be tempted to say, especially after watching this film, that Germany is also a world master in the production of cruel dictatorships. Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland— Death is a master from Germany—wrote Paul Celan in his incomparable post-Holocaust “Death Fugue.” In respect of fascism, Hitler’s Germany was undoubtedly the world champion—all too literally a world-beater. But can the same be said of Honecker’s Germany? Yes, this small country with just 17 million people was a kind of miniature masterpiece of psychological intimidation. As Orwell saw, the perfect totalitarian system is the one that does not need to kill or physically torture anyone. I am the last person to minimize the evils of the East German regime; but when set against the millions of deaths in Stalin’s gulag, Mao’s enforced famines, and Pol Pot’s genocide, it is hard to maintain that this was the worst that communism produced.

In that larger scheme of things, East Germany, unlike Nazi Germany, was but a sideshow. The Stasi was modeled on the KGB and not, as many people vaguely imagine, on the Gestapo. As the archives of other Soviet bloc states are opened, we find that their secret police worked in very similar ways. Perhaps the Stasi was that little bit better because it was, well, German; but there are so many larger horrors in the files of the KGB. And we should not forget that the subtle psychological terror of the Stasi state depended, from the first day to the last, on the presence of the Red Army and the willingness of the Soviet Union to use force. When that went, the Stasi state went too.

So why is it that the word “Stasi”—not “KGB,” “Red Guards,” or “Khmer Rouge”—is rapidly becoming a global synonym for communist terror? Because the enterprise in which the Germans truly are Weltmeister is the cultural reproduction of their country’s versions of terror. No nation has been more brilliant, more persistent, and more innovative in the investigation, communication, and representation—the re-presentation, and re-re-presentation—of its own past evils.

This cultural reproduction has to do with the character of both the perpetrators and the victims. In Hitler’s holocaust, the people of Gutenberg set out to exterminate the people of the book. One of Europe’s most talented, profound, creative nations tried to destroy another, with which it had lived in an intense, fecund cultural symbiosis for many years. (“The Germans are a bad love of the Jews,” a Polish peasant woodcarver once observed to a friend of mine.) Afterward, both nations memorialized the horror with a meticulousness and an artistry never before seen. In Celan’s “Death Fugue,” a German poem that whispers with echoes of Hasidic mysticism, that memorialization was itself a new triumph—a living forward out of death—of the German-Jewish symbiosis. Celan himself spoke of how the German language that he loved had survived “the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech” (die tausend Finsternisse todbringender Rede). Now that language lived again through him, who had himself just eluded the master from Germany.

In the case of communism, the Germans did it to themselves—though not in a sovereign state. The people of Gutenberg oppressed the people of Luther. As soon as it was over, the people of Ranke took up the story. A generation of West German contemporary historians, trained in the study of Nazism, turned their skilled attentions to the GDR, and especially to the dissection of the Stasi. Only the existence and character of West Germany, with its fiercely moral and professional approach to dealing with a difficult past, explains the unique cultural transmission of the Stasi phenomenon. (Imagine that the former Soviet Union had been taken over by a democratic West Russia, equipped and motivated to expose all the evils of the KGB.) And now we have the movie version, produced by a thoroughly Americanized young West German.

Each stage of this process builds on the last. Cognitive scientists tell us that the repetition of words and images strengthens the synapses connecting the neurons in the neural circuits that compute, in our heads, the meaning of those words and images. With time, these mental associations become electrochemically hard-wired. Whether intentionally or not, The Lives of Others plugs straight into these preexisting connections in our minds. Take that apparently trivial detail of the Stasi officers’ dress uniforms. Why does it matter? Because the sight of Germans in Prussian gray, with long, shining leather boots, shrieks to our synapses: Nazis.

One is then not at all surprised to discover that the actor who portrays Wiesler’s sinister superior, Colonel Grubitz, made his reputation back in 1984—the year the film is set—playing, on a West German stage, the role of an SS man. The real everyday Stasi uniforms, dreary numbers made of bargain-basement terylene, completed by cheap mailman’s boots, would not have the same effect. In the theatrical way they are shot, the scenes of the playwright Dreyman dancing around the culture minister reminded me strongly of Mephisto, István Szabó’s brilliant film about the actor-director Gustaf Gründgens, and his Faustian pact with Hermann Goering. Another circuit of Nazi-Stasi associations is involuntarily fired.

Then there is the pivotal moment when Dreyman plays the classical “Sonata of the Good Man” on the piano, while Wiesler listens on his headphones. After he finishes, Dreyman turns to Christa and exclaims, “Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean really heard it, still be a bad person?” Von Donnersmarck says he was inspired by a passage in which Maxim Gorky records Lenin saying that he can’t listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata because it makes him want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of little people, whereas in fact those little heads must be beaten, beaten mercilessly, to make the revolution. As a first-year film student, von Donnersmarck wondered “what if one could force a Lenin to hear the Appassionata,” and that was the original germ of his movie. (Dreyman actually refers to Lenin’s remark.)

So the inspiration for this scene was Russian. But what are the connections that we—especially we of Lane’s “us”—instantly make as we watch? Surely we think of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, with the German officer deeply affected by the Polish Jewish pianist’s playing of Chopin, and therefore sparing his life—as Wiesler now spares Dreyman. Surely we think, too, of the educated Nazi killers who in the evening listened to the music of Mendelssohn, then went out the next morning to murder more Mendelssohns. Did they not really hear the music? Does high culture humanize? We are back with the deepest twentieth-century German conundrum, conveyed most movingly in music and poetry. Such are the synaptic connections that make The Lives of Others resonate so powerfully in our heads.

The Germany in which this film was produced, in the early years of the twenty-first century, is one of the most free and civilized countries on earth. In this Germany, human rights and civil liberties are today more jealously and effectively protected than (it pains me to say) in traditional homelands of liberty such as Britain and the United States. In this good land, the professionalism of its historians, the investigative skills of its journalists, the seriousness of its parliamentarians, the generosity of its funders, the idealism of its priests and moralists, the creative genius of its writers, and, yes, the brilliance of its filmmakers have all combined to cement in the world’s imagination the most indelible association of Germany with evil. Yet without these efforts, Germany would never have become such a good land. In all the annals of human culture, has there ever been a more paradoxical achievement?


The Stasi on Our Minds’: An Exchange July 19, 2007

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