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Every November 9th we celebrate one of the most important events in recent history, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Last year we commemorated this event with a list of songs that contributed to its demolition. This time, we have compiled a list of 3 German films that help us better understand what life was like behind the Iron Curtain since the infamous Berlin Wall was erected.
The Lives of Others (2006), during the existence of the Berlin Wall
Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008, this German film written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has become one of the best works about the oppressive life in East Germany while the Berlin Wall was in place.
The Lives of Others narrates the evolution of a Stasi agent —the communist political police—, who goes from being an idealistic and loyal defender of communism, to becoming completely disillusioned with this nefarious ideology.
The protagonist agent of the film is assigned to the surveillance of a playwright suspected of being a pro-Western counterrevolutionary. After long hours of listening to this writer and his partner, the agent begins to understand the hell of censorship and repression in which he is involved.
His disillusionment occurs mainly when he realizes that he is a mere tool of the Minister of Culture, who wants to get rid of the playwright in order to keep his girlfriend, whom he blackmails to obtain sexual favors in exchange for not including her in the blacklist of artists disaffected with the regime.
This is an exquisite and elegant film, which perfectly captures the totalitarian and oppressive nature of life on that side of the wall. Its message is forceful: a good man, a good person, cannot collaborate with the communist system.
When the wall falls at the end of the film, thousands of civil servants and citizens who were dedicated to spying on their compatriots are left with nothing to do. After watching it, it is inevitable to wonder what became of the dreams and aspirations of millions of people who were trapped in this perverse system.
Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), after the fall of the Berlin Wall
Although this 2003 German film is not a frontal criticism of communism —as it leaves a certain aftertaste of melancholy for life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall—, the truth is that it shows in a humorous and acid way how ridiculous it was to keep half of a country prisoner.
It tells the story of a young man whose mother fell into a coma just before the fall of the wall. When she woke up a few years later, the doctors advised the protagonist to spare his mother any unpleasantness in order to protect her fragile heart.
As the mother was a staunch supporter of communism, her son decides to make her believe that the Wall is still standing, using all sorts of tricks and ruses to keep her in the deception. So, for example, when the mother begins to see images on television of East Germans crossing into the West, her son tells her that they are West Germans crossing into the East, “fleeing capitalism.”
The film is a reminder of an overwhelming evidence, but one that many still refuse to accept today: the Berlin Wall was built to prevent people from fleeing the supposed communist paradise, not to prevent their entry.
This film also teaches us that the Berlin Wall was not only an architectural barrier, but was accompanied by a mental barrier installed in the minds of citizens through fierce propaganda and censorship.
The Quiet Revolution (2018), before the construction of the Berlin Wall
It seems that Hollywood is only interested in the German history of a very specific period, tiptoeing over what happened in the Germany that was under the Soviet yoke. Fortunately, although Hollywood ignores this subject, there are German filmmakers who suffered the scourge of communism and are willing to tell the story of what happened.
This film is set in East Germany around 1956, that is, a few years before the beginning of the construction of the wall of infamy. It tells the story of some East German high school students who sneak into a cinema in the West and, in the newsreel before the film, discover the anti-communist revolution taking place in Hungary and the terrible repression to quell it.
Back at their high school, they decide, along with the rest of the class, to observe a minute’s silence in tribute to the young Hungarians who have fallen in the anti-communist struggle, which triggers a series of dramatic reprisals against them by the communist educational authorities.
Ultimately, the film becomes a step-by-step chronicle of the circumstances that lead a socialist regime to increase repression and censorship until it eventually has to build a physical wall to prevent its citizens from fleeing.
This film reminds us that a communist dictatorship is not something that emerges overnight, but that it happens little by little, with the increasing loss of freedoms, and the gradual increase of information control and censorship, among other things.
Ignacio Manuel García Medina, Business Management teacher. Artist and lecturer specialized in Popular Culture for various platforms. Presenter of the program "Pop Libertario" for the Juan de Mariana Institute. Lives in the Canary Islands, Spain // Ignacio M. García Medina es profesor de Gestión de Empresas. Es miembro del Instituto Juan de Mariana y conferenciante especializado en Cultura Popular e ideas de la Libertad.
Social Networks: @ignaciomgm