Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Das Leben der Anderen"

Two years ago, P and I visited Berlin in a freezing February and visited the former Stasi Headquarters in Lichtenberg, former East Germany. Initially, I was reluctant to make the long trek outside the comfort of the former west to trawl through what was still a solid mass of faceless, harsh, grey concrete to reach the domineering and over-shadowing Stasi block. But it was fascinating at the same time as horrific.

None of the people of the former Warsaw Pact countries were as highly monitored as the East Germans: there was one Stasi officer for every 180 people, compared with one KGB officer for every 595 people in the Soviet Union. It was around this time, February 2005, that I became aware of a new German film called "Das Leben der Anderen" ("The Lives of Others") being made by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, but it is only now that the film won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in February 2007, that it has seen the light of day in England.

When a stroll down the Kings Road on Tuesday afternoon took me past the Chelsea Cinema, which was displaying a poster saying the film started in one hours time, I bought a ticket straight away. The film is astonishingly good and deserving of its Oscar. It would be difficult to call it enjoyable, as at well over two hours it is an intense slog through the claustrophobic, bleak, corrupt and distrustful Orwellian world of the Stasi, where everyone is an informant on everyone else.

I don't want to say too much for fear of giving the plot away. But "Das Leben der Anderen" centers on writer Georg (Sebastian Koch) who, in 1984, comes under suspicion of Stasi officer Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), who sets about bugging Georg's flat and monitoring every word he says to his friend and lover, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Georg's fury at the lack of freedom he or his friends have is heightened when a director friend of his hangs himself after the Stasi take away his right to direct any more stage plays. This prompts Georg to look into why suicides are glossed over under the Stasi rule and leads him to write a controversial article for a western magazine about what the Stasi is concealing.

But the film is much more complicated than that. There are all the lies, the deception, the fight for survival and the hideous things you had to do for people you loathed just to keep your head above water. And the most repugnant scene of all is right at the start of the film, when Wiesler is interrogating a man accused of helping someone cross the wall.

There is a fantastic article about this film here, on The Guardian website, which I strongly recommend. It is written by Neal Ascherson, who was The Observer's Berlin correspondent at the height of Stasi rule, and is one of the most interesting articles I have read for a very long time. read the article and see the film, because it is shocking how recently all this happened.

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