East Germany Again, in Word and Film: “Stasiland” & “The Lives of Others”

It remains slightly astonishing how little relative fanfare accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union and communist Central Europe. While the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the death rattle of the Soviet empire made splashes at the time they occurred, the fuss seemed to die down rather quickly. Americans of several generations lived in terror of nuclear annihilation as the result either of accident or war, the disappearance of one side of this bi-lateral sword of Damocles producing less demonstrable relief than many expected.

Clearly there was something telling in the fact that the American right, after politically and monetarily milking for forty-plus years a hysterical version of anti-communism that evinced little credible concern for the actual victims of repression (supporting all manner of rightist authoritarian regimes around the world) quickly lost interest in that part of the globe, resisting aid to a renewed Russia, seemingly more consumed with mourning the loss of an issue than with celebrating freedom. Certainly there is something to the twofold notion that American reactionaries never really were terribly distressed by authoritarianism, and if anything envied Soviet domination of its body politic; and that having argued for more than forty years that such a largely peaceful transition was all but impossible wished to avoid the subject.

In any case, no part of the pan-communist domain was as eerie or mysterious, no populace thought to be living so tensely, no society as fully Orwellian as the German Democratic Republic.  Two superior works, Stasiland, a non-fiction, highly personal examination of life in the GDR published in 2004, along with the 2006 German film The Lives of Others offer somewhat fraternal looks at the same subject,  similar yet entirely distinct. A quality they share, welcome in journalism as it is in film is the conjuring of rich atmospherics able to convey time and place with remarkable vividness and palpable texture.

The Stasi of course was the feared and fierce state internal security apparatus which controlled East German society down to the microscopic level, relying not only on a vast number of  actual agents but on a staggering number of citizen informers too. This latter uncomfortable reality was what most terrified the East Germans, fellow citizens induced to spy, meaning one literally never knew whom to trust, knowing that anything one said or revealed to persons one may have had every reason to trust may eventually be passed along to authorities. One extraordinary fact presented in the book is that it is estimated there was one Stasi informer for every 6.5 citizens.

Australian Anna Funder, the author of Stasiland lived in what at the time was West Berlin as a student during the 1980s and returned in the Nineties to work in television. Essentially her curiosity about life in the East during her first stay evolved into an active quest to learn about it during the latter. If you have no interest whatsoever in the subject generally, the quality of Funder’s prose is unlikely to make a difference. But if you do have even a passing interest her intimate style and personalized account make an ideal marriage with this subject.

Her own story of living among and developing personal relationships with residents of the former East Germany is a remarkably appealing keyhole through which to examine an odd historical moment, the touches of autobiography lending her account a novelistic, idiosyncratic appeal that freshens it in unexpected ways. At times it becomes a virtual travelogue of the authoritarian, as she visits landmarks of national abomination such as the Stasi headquarters located in Leipzig, now transformed into a Stasi Museum. Throughout she relates the histories of victims and perpetrators alike, which are equally fascinating, and at times assume a macabre aura of unreality.  In each case she lets them have their say. Some of the stories are stranger than others, such as that of the young agent who actually drew the line where the wall would be. Finishing Stasiland one indeed comes away feeling one has travelled into the heart of darkness and the heart of weirdness perhaps, bringing back a pocketful of insights, enlightened as well as truly affected . Funder is both a quirky and a down-to-earth guide. Delving with her into past perplexities and present realities is time richly spent.

Not so surprisingly the fictional account of this ephemeral time and place is considerably darker than the non-fiction version. The Lives of Others was written and produced by first-time director Florian Hencket von Donnsmarck, winning a slew of awards in Europe, as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. This is one of those pleasant occasions when such accolades truly are deserved.

Like Stasiland, this is a story of both the spies and the spied upon. Its central quartet of characters includes a state-approved playwright conspiring to send an exposé (suppressed reports on suicide rates in the GDR) out to the West, the prominent actress who is his live-in girlfriend, the Stasi Captain assigned to do the surveillance (audio and video) and his Stasi boss.

A German film about East Germany and the Stasi is more exceptional than one might think. According to Stasiland’s author Anna Funder in the previously non-Communist western portion of Germany there is very little curiosity about what occurred on the other side of the Wall, nor contemporaneous interest in the citizens of the former GDR, viewed as something like dolts for failing to rise up against the regime, or as poorly hicks acting as a drag on the united Germany.

In The Lives of Others there is nothing pat or reflexive, no lazy political clichés or mechanically operated characters carrying out their expected and preordained service. One of the reasons films of this sort are so compelling is that there is no need for manufactured drama: it is built into the circumstances. One of the apparent truisms pertaining to such hermetically sealed societies as this is that life in them is alternately greatly more intensified or more sterile, on a day-to day basis at times a surreal mix. Von Donnsmarck does well at capturing this dichotomy.

In some ways the drama here is a drama of the human conscience, as much as it is an examination of the psychology of pressurized and precipitous circumstances. Fortunately, even for dramatists exploring life in authoritarian nations, success, ambition, status, lust, loneliness, happiness and moral choices are thriving preoccupations no matter the ideological comportment of nation-states. But of course it is in the nature of this story that there is an additional edge and an element of profundity in our witness to the depravity of power and ideology, the sleights of artistic compromise, the price of conscience, the pervasiveness of human fallibility and human empathy.

The acting here is brilliant and the Seventies astutely recreated in all their bland, communistic squalor. Stasiland and The Lives of Others make a remarkably suitable tandem, documenting and testament to some extraordinary lives and extraordinary circumstances. They, and their time and place intellectually provoke, stirring the imagination, moral and otherwise.

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