saw ‘the lives of others’ the other night – new german film about the oppressive state regime and the actions of the state security apparatus – the stasi – in east germany before the wall was pulled down in 1989. a man listens to another man talking about his opinions. fairly innocuous, of course; until you realise that the man doing the listening is sitting a few floors above the other man’s apartment, and that the sound of his subject’s voice is carried through wires hidden behind light switches. and the man who is doing the talking is only being listened to because he has failed to do anything that might actually arouse suspicion in the first place. that, perversely, is what makes the stasi pay attention.
‘the lives of others’ is a tremendous drama about two human beings and their competing interpretations of what it means to be free. for one, the apparatus of state control is what liberates – if you don’t have to think about your life, if you don’t have to actually make any decisions, then, the argument goes, the potential exists for some kind of secular nirvana, where all desire is absent. for the other, the existence of ‘me’ is crushed by such authoritarianism and must eventually be resisted, even if it means the death of reputation, career, or even body.
this film ends with the line ‘it’s for me’, and that statement, of course, can only actually be made by a free person, in a free society.
if the film exists in a clear space and time (and in spite of its over-statement of the very possibility of a stasi operative subverting his masters – on which see anna funder’s article in the may issue of ‘sight and sound‘), it does make subtle comment on the world in which we now live. it is impossible to see surveillance of private lives, and the suggestion that patriotism depends on not criticising any particular government, without thinking (with a good deal of morose regret) of the utter lack of moral imagination applied by the authoritative bodies in the post-9/11 era.
another character makes the link clear, after the momentous events of 1989, for he now has the courage to confront one of his previous political masters with the words ‘i can’t believe people like you once ruled a country’.
p.s.: ‘the lives of others’ is a film for our times, and let’s hope that hillary benn sees it before he gives his speech challenging ‘war on terror’ language later today.