From Socialist Voice, January 2008

Film review

The lives of others

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) is an elegantly crafted film. It is evocative, emotional, and well acted. But make no mistake: this intriguing piece of cinema is not merely film for art’s sake: rather, it is a cleverly executed piece of propaganda.
    The German director-filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck presents a fictional account of Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a Stasi (East German security ministry) agent who develops an unhealthy obsession with the actor Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).
    Sieland has also attracted the attention of an unscrupulous bureaucrat who uses his political position and leverage with the Stasi to undermine the woman’s relationship with a playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), by calling into question the couple’s loyalty to the state. Wiesler is placed in charge of the Stasi operation, conducting 24-hour surveillance of Dreyman and Sieland.
    As Wiesler descends further into his fixation, a tangled web of intrigue and romance is woven that blurs professional, emotional and ideological boundaries. However, the story attempts to conceal a thinly veiled propaganda technique that associates deviant individual personalities with Marxism in order to demonise the entire ideology without addressing its analysis. The film continues in this tradition by using fictional East German officials as sexual deviants, corrupt political opportunists, and inhuman bureaucrats.
    Although The Lives of Others touches on the ugly side of espionage, and the very real problems of organisation and ideology that existed during the Cold War, the filmmaker does his work a disservice by pushing such an overt political message. Furthermore, he does not place the story in an adequate historical context. Instead he has chosen to portray the dark history of the Cold War as though it were an inevitable product of socialism rather than a problem that existed both in the East and the West.
    There is no mention of the activities of Western intelligence, which were equally invasive, psychologically manipulative—and, in many instances, murderous. There is no mention of the fact that members of the Communist Party in West Germany were blacklisted, monitored, sometimes blackmailed, and barred from employment; nor does the film mention that many of the agents working on behalf of NATO powers in Germany were former Nazis.
    To its credit, however, the film illustrates (perhaps unintentionally) many of the shortcomings that permeate ideologically driven organisations that fail to address the contradictory ideals instilled in individuals under capitalism, for example the cult of individualism and self-glorification that exists in consumer culture, which works simultaneously against the backdrop of morality taught by religious and civic organisations, creating internal conflict both consciously and subconsciously for people within bourgeois society.
    The seductive story told in Das Leben der Anderen is a very ideologically charged, one-sided though very well-constructed work of loosely based historical fiction. It is an enjoyable story of love and betrayal and is certainly worth seeing—if you don’t mind a few unflattering or biased political lectures.
[LD]

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