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By Johannes Wetzel

PARIS, 23 FEBRUARY 2007 —The Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 2006 will be awarded on February 25th, and the winner just might be Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others )  This German film on the Stasi (the secret police in the former East Germany), has already won numerous German and European film awards.

Released in the U.S. in February, Das Leben der Anderen is a very well-made film with an outstanding cast. Despite its unusual length (2:17) and fairly conventional direction, an atmosphere of suspense is sustained throughout.

German critics have stressed that Das Leben der Anderen is one of the rare films that deal seriously with the second dictatorship to take hold in Germany in the twentieth century. Among the other films that treat the subject, some are close to documentaries:  like Das Ministerium fĂĽr Staatssicherheit: Alltag einer Behörde (2002) by Jan Lorenzen and Christian Klemke, and Aus Liebe zum Volk (2003) by Eyal Sivan and Audrey Maurion.  Others, such as Connie Walthers' Feuer und Flamme (2001), are clearly fictional. But Das Leben der Anderen  is the first to gain such a large audience, or to be so praised by a majority of critics:

It seems that the time has now come when the GDR can be considered as more than a mere curiosity—a place where narrow minded people drove plastic cars and ate Spreewald gherkins , as shown inGood Bye Lenin (2003) or Sonnenallee (1999). There are hilarious moments, such as a Stasi typewriter expert explaining blandly to his superior why he can't identify a typewriter used by an opponent of the regime (under which all typewriters had to be registered by their owners).  But on the whole, the  film is set in opposition to the current impluse to Ostalgie (the nostalgic look backwards on the old East Germany), and especially the attempts of former Stasi officers to downplay the brutality of the regime .  

Ulrich Muhe as Captain Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Although Das Leben der Anderen was directed by a West German first-time filmmaker, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, some of the highest authorities on life in the GDR feel that this film got it right.  Wolf Biermann, the most famous opponent to the regime who was exiled in 1974, acclaimed it "a realistic portrait of GDR". "Unbelievebaly authentic", says Thomas Brussig, author and scriptwriter born in the GDR. Joachim Gauck and Marianne Birthler, former victims of Stasi persecution and now directors of the administration in charge of the Stasi legacy, "recommend" the picture: "That’s how it was", they say.

The acclaim was not, however, unalloyed. All reviewers had to acknowledge that the story told in this picture is unfortunately a fairy-tale and not a fine example of heroic resistance to the regime. The director of the Stasi-Museum located in the former Hohenschönhausen prison, laments the film's "careless" way of dealing with the past. The Stasi officer  (Ulrich MĂĽhe) , assigned to keep under surveillance the couple of a celebrated actress (Martina Gedeck) and a famous playwright (Sebastian Koch), changes sides. He rescues the writer from serious trouble and pays for that by being demoted. Such events not only never happened, but never could have happened, given the severe control mechanisms of the Stasi. Worse: This plot turns the perpetrator into a victim. This falsification of history rightly shocked some of those who had suffered at the hands of the secret police.

Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck in The Lives of Others
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

After German reunification, the playwright, as thousands of former GDR-citizens did, reads the records the Stasi had compiled on him, and discovers the truth: who saved him (the officer) and who betrayed him (his own wife). To his guardian angel he dedicated his new book. Its title: Ballad of the Good Human. This redemption of  the devil is hard to accept for many of the regime's victims, such as the 16,000 men and women to whom German politicians recently granted a 250-euro monthly pension for spending six months or more in jail for political reasons. This film intends reconciliation. But eighteen years after the wall came down, Germany is only at the beginning of working through its past.

Ulrich Muhe and Ulrich Tukur in The Lives of Others
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

And why, after all, does this Stasi-officer change from Saul to Paul?  Once again, the plot reduces the political problem to a sentimental one. The officer, shown as living alone in a sad greyish flat relieved only by the visit of a government-owned prostitute, witnesses the far more exciting "lives of others" and is moved by the contrast. Maybe he simply falls in love with the beautifull actress. Maybe he is moved by the writers grief upon learning of the suicide of a a fellow director, banned from working for years by the regime. Or maybe he just disapproves the observation when he realizes that its purpose is to eliminate the playwright simply because the minister of culture lusts after his wife. But whatever the reason, he does not evolve into a political opponent to a dictatorship with no respect for democracy, justice and human rights.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

When he explains the genesis of his film, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck cites a quote from Lenin. As he recalls it: "I shouldn’t listen to Beethoven's Appassionata piano sonata too often. Otherwise, I feel like petting children’s heads and will never finish my revolution." Unfortunately for us all, the Appassionata never did change history.

Johannes Wetzel is a German journalist and culture critic. Based in Paris, he contributes to the Berliner Zeitung, Die Welt, and Stuttgarter Zeitung. 

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