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Both before and after director Tom Tykwer sent his then-girlfriend Franka Potente running through the streets of Berlin in the 1999 film Lola Rennt, Wolfgang Petersen's 1981 submarine epic Das Boot would undoubtedly rank as the most seminal German film of all time. Tykwer's breakout film, which forcefully launched Potente's career in Hollywood (which has included performances alongside Johnny Depp in Blow, and with Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy), was special not simply because it was an original film, but because it was an original German film. Even so, it could hardly be considered a blockbuster, having grossed only $14.5 million worldwide since its release (by contrast, Ratatouille, an animated comedy about a rodent chef, grossed more than $47 million last weekend alone). The fact of the matter is that, although it is the driving force behind the European Union, a charter member of both NATO and the G8, and the famed home of quality beers, bio-medical engineering, and luxury automobiles, as a nation Germany has, for the most part, been mired in decades of cultural bankruptcy.
This of course was not always the case; from Fritz Lang to Max Ernst, Germany has had a long and colorful history of contributions to the global culture. Since 1945, however, the country has been in a marathon to run away from itself, a remake of modesty in a shame-fueled attempt to become an assemblage of Weltbürger rather than Germans. To simply erase the stigma of "Germany" may have sufficed, but the post-WWII presence of hundreds of thousands of US military personnel made the country's Americanization much more rapid and complete than anywhere else on the planet. Over the decades Germans have come to embrace not only Levis jeans, McDonalds transfats, and Harley Davidson motorbikes with an unrivaled fervor, they have gone so far as to idolize David Hasselhof and even create their own "America" when need be (for years every German I knew thought mobile phones were called "handies" in the United States, and the name has stuck). The post-war generation's desire to be German without a capital G was understandable, but tragically, as a result, the country's contributions to fields outside of science and industry - those that would carry with them an unavoidable mark of Germaneness - have all but disappeared. Outside of perhaps music, Germany's film industry has been one of the most notably languid cultural sectors; of the nearly 137 million visits made to German cinemas in 2006, only 25-percent were to see German films, and that in spite of the country's annual output more than doubling in the past decade, from 76 films in 1997 to 174 in 2006. The reason? Quite simple - of the German films that are made, all but a handful simply ape established American formulas, and the citizenry is smart enough to drop its Euros on the German-dubbed originals.
The significance of both Germany's long-running identity crisis and its cultural servitude to the United States play out in a plethora of social and political undercurrents in Das Leben der Anderen ("The Lives of Others"), the writing and directorial feature film debut of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Set amid the stagnant Cold War climate of the former East Germany (DDR) in 1984, the film examines the lives of government officials, professional spies, and artists as they become inextricably intertwined, and in doing so delves into a haystack of humanity that is eerily as accurate today as it was decades ago.
The idea that a smalltime playwright (East Germans were essentially banned, through strict government control of content, from wider appeal) with innocuous, if any, political ideologies and his girlfriend could become the subject of an unwarranted, full-scale surveillance program might seem absurdly fictional, but nothing could have been any more logical and plausible in the DDR of the early 1980s, where a country of less than 17 million people was policed by a network of nearly 400,000 civilian informers and Staatssicherheit homeland security agents known as the Stasi. Like the former nation itself, the film is gripped by an air of paranoia.
Von Donnersmarck's talent for deftly conveying the cloak of the Socialists' control system is perhaps best illustrated by a scene from the Stasi lunchroom in which a rank and file officer, telling a joke in which DDR leader Erich Honecker is the butt, is overheard by national loyalist and Stasi chief officer Anton Grubitz (played by Ulrich Tukur). After prodding the young man into telling the joke, Grubitz cites the man's "political agitation" as "just the tip of the iceberg" and asks for his name, rank, and department, freezing everyone in the room. Just one of the morsels of humanity that von Donnersmarck's interjects into the story, Grubitz is poking fun, but the context of the encounter, like the rest of the country, is hardly a laughing matter. In such a system of control and surveillance even the most benign remark could lead to the end of a career or even a life.
Grubitz, a moralistic nincompoop playing his subordinates as instruments in an orchestrated rise to power and influence, is a character that is minor to the story but central to the plot. When a party boss becomes enamored with beautiful and celebrated thespian Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), Grubitz is tasked to collect information on the actress and her equally prominent playwright boyfriend Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). The details of the intelligence gathering, which comes to include wire taps, bugs, and video surveillance, fall to Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an intelligence tactician whose staunch nationalist bent has moved him up in the ranks only as far as his lack of political ambitions would allow. With governmental power players invested in the operation's outcome, Wiesler immerses himself into its details to an extent that even he begins to question those who ordered it. Exposed to the lives of others - everything from their sexual habits to their volumes of Bertolt Brecht - Wiesler sees his own desolate existence and mindless soldiering in stark contrast. An inevitable personal metamorphosis ensues, but Wiesler, charged with the very real task of securing (or, when called for, interpreting) evidence against Dreyman and Sieland, has little room to maneuver; a Stasi instructor himself, he knows the consequences of disloyalty.
As pointed as the film's themes are to Germans, who had scarcely come to terms with their Nazi past only to absorb the infractions of the DDR, Das Leben der Anderen is perhaps equally appropriate for American audiences. The film begins with Wiesler's interrogation of a seemingly law-abiding citizen who, after hours of relentless and mechanical questioning, reveals that he knows a man who knows a man who fled to the free West. When playing the interrogation tapes for a class of Stasi recruits, Wiesler plays down objections to "inhumane" tactics like sleep deprivation, citing a belief that "an innocent prisoner becomes angrier every hour... because of the injustice done to him." The irony, of course, is that the players are operating in a system where justice has less to do with right and wrong than it does with politics, and dissent is often equated to disloyalty and/or guilt. To drive the point home, von Donnersmarck's lens sneaks in a frame of Wiesler's desk, where on a layout of the class seating chart he denotes with a mark the seat of the student concerned with conducting a humane interrogation.
In Wiesler's classroom of East German intelligence, just as in the executive and judicial offices of the United States' "war on terror," the end - a vague "national security," played out under the guise of patriotic duty - is a justification for the means. The use of fear, intimidation and public reprimand are thoroughly current governmental tactics, and the number of analogies that can be drawn between the socio-political system of a defunct and generally reviled iron-fisted isolationist regime and the current American climate are astounding; artists and cultural tastemakers pushing the official line, however absurd, are rewarded (Rupert Murdoch's FOX network) while those who speak out are cast as pariahs (country megastars Dixie Chicks), as un-patriotic (Michael Moore), or as simply unstable (Howard Dean, Ralph Nader). Everyone else (Hillary Clinton, John Kerry), if they know what is good for them, shuts up and goes with the flow.
Das Leben der Anderen is powerful not just for the broad moralistic and ideological implications it makes, both domestically and historically as well as contemporarily and internationally, but also for the way in which the 2007 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film makes them. Given the known outcome of the DDR and the Stasi organization (its intelligence files were eventually made available, after German reunification, to the public) there is a level of certainty in the film's overall direction from the get-go, but, right up through the last, the events that take place throughout its 137 minutes are anything but predictable.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has proven, in his first feature no less, to be remarkably adept at threading politically charged tones into the fabric of a film without a single concession to its artistic merit. The cast, led by Mühe, Koch, and Gedeck, all deliver convincing performances that balance perfectly between being understated and overwrought. Both the cast and the crew dominated the 2006 Deutscher Filmpreis awards, with a Best Supporting Actor win for Tukur and a nod for Ulrich Mühe's brilliant delivery as Best Actor, along with top screenplay and direction nods for von Donnersmarck, and wins for everything from cinematography to sound to costumes.
Self-examination is universally seen as a hallmark of progress, and both political analysts and sociologists can no doubt consider Das Leben der Anderen (along with the 2004 film Der Untergang, about Hitler's final days in his bunker) a step in a positive direction. Such sentiments are, of course, like the film itself, multi-faceted. Not only does von Donnersmarck use the not-too-far and not-too-near distance of now to address his country's past, he does so in a film that is both artistically and topically original rather than a cheap German rip-off of a cheap American idea. In just over a year since its release, the film has grossed more than $60 million, quadruple the cumulative box office haul of Lola Rennt. The difference is not only in the films themselves, which are artistically unrelated, but also in the pervasive social confidence of their country of origin, and one can only hope - for so many reasons - that, for a nation emerging from half a century of being in the American shadow, the changes continue to be as dramatic and reinforcing as Das Leben der Anderen. SEE ALSO: www.movie.de/filme/dlda/
SEE ALSO: www.sonyclassics.com/thelivesofothers
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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