In the eleventh installment of Las Movies, the space that El American dedicates to analyzing the world of culture and entertainment, Ignacio M. García Medina talks about the excesses of the communist police in East Germany and how they are exposed in The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006.
The Lives of Others, which was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut as screenwriter and director, is set in East Berlin during the last years of the German Democratic Republic. Its plot is dedicated to showing the control and persecution exercised by the communists’ secret police (known as Stasi) against the impoverished citizenry.
García Medina points out that, although there are hundreds of films set in Nazi Germany and its political police (the Gestapo), there are not so many about East Germany. Although the few that do exist tell their story very well. “It’s curious because the German Democratic Republic was neither a Republic, nor democratic nor German, it was a Soviet dictatorship,” Ignacio says.
The Context: Espionage in Communist Germany
It is estimated that the Stasi had a massive surveillance apparatus. The communist police had almost 90,000 officers and nearly 200,000 informants who were in charge of monitoring the daily lives and political activities of the citizenry, with the aim of “preventing” subversive behavior.
Interestingly, the actor who stars in this film, Ulrich Mühe, lived in East Germany and was persecuted by the Stasi, and confessed that the woman who was his wife at the time was his watcher and informer to the communist authorities.
The documents compiling the informants’ statements formed a dossier of about 33 million pages. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall on January 15, 1990, citizens seized the Stasi headquarters to prevent the destruction of these documents and the loss of evidence of the espionage to which society was subjected.
The play: the director’s vision and the actor’s experience
The premise of The Lives of Others is precisely about Stasi espionage missions. In a “sensitive and shocking” performance, Ulrich Mühe stars as an efficient and servile civil servant, a fervent communist, who is assigned the mission of spying on a playwright. As he progresses in his mission, the character loses faith and loyalty to socialism and the system he works for.
He soon realizes that his mission is nothing more than a ploy by the Minister of Culture to imprison his target and conquer his wife, an actress with whom he has an extramarital affair.
For García Medina, the film conveys “that terror that the communists were capable of imposing” through their political police, as well as the impunity with which they perpetrated their atrocities. “You see how a government that promises to be able to give you everything, can also take everything away from you.”
Another aspect Ignacio highlights about The Lives of Others is that it shows how important it is for communism to control the world of culture, “not only to transmit its propaganda, but to prevent messages contrary to its ideology from flourishing and spreading.”
This work, like the few others of its kind, are fundamental to many people’s understanding of the horrors of communist tyranny. “Maybe that’s why, self-servingly, it’s not given so much diffusion and that’s why there is this lack of knowledge among the youth about what communism is, and they even ask for it,” says Ignacio.
Don’t miss this and previous installments of Las Movies, hosted by Ignacio García Medina. You can find all the chapters on our YouTube channel.