Why I hate “The Lives of Others”

Ulrich Mühe in "The Lives of Others"

Ulrich Mühe in "The Lives of Others"

As William Dean Howells once told Edith Wharton, “Americans only want tragedies with happy endings.” And not just Americans, it seems, but also Germans along with everyone else on this punch-drunk planet who is able to afford the price of a movie ticket.

Whenever I tell people that I once lived for sixth months in old East Berlin and even wrote a whole book on ideology and propaganda in that troubled society, they almost always tell me how much they adore Florian Henckell von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film The Lives of Others. To them, this movie tells the true story of the East German experience and has redeemed their faith in humanity. Hmm, I always say. How can that be? Because to my mind the young West German director’s debut epos is not just manipulative filmmaking but presents a profoundly flawed history lesson. Is my negative take on this Oscar winner – which made number one on The National Review‘s “list of the 25 best conservative movies of the last 25 years” – merely a product of my imagined superior taste in movies or did the totalitarian experience sour me on “humanity” in general? Or is the scholar and history instructor in me rearing his head again? Since it is hard to explain my feelings to its devotees during a brief elevator ride, let alone amid the hubbub of a cocktail party, I think I owe an incredulous world a thorough explanation of why this movie is reactionary, radioactive rubbish and why they too should consider giving it a miss the next time it hits their local art house.

Before doing so I feel obliged to point out that my disdain for The Lives of Others does not in any way extend to fans of the film. On the contrary! Anyone who is willing to sit through two hours of gloomy Central European melodrama with colorless sets and pretentious subtitles has earned my respect. I also suspect that if I did not have such an intimate acquaintance with the realities of the East German regime, there is at least an outside chance that I might also think it was “the best movie I ever saw” (William F. Buckley). But I think nothing of the kind – and here’s why.

A Marxist-Leninist Christmas Carol

The Lives of Others tells the story of Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler, a professional spy and manipulator, who in 1984 receives orders to bug and then personally eavesdrop on the apartment of a politically suspect playwright called Georg Dreyman in order to detect suspicious activities or statements that could be used to prosecute him. The real reason for this mission, Wiesler soon learns, is that an East German government minister wants to eliminate Dreyman – King David-style – in order to make a move on the writer’s girlfriend, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland, who also happens to be a personal favorite of Wiesler. The more Wiesler learns about the couple and their ultra-cool intellectual lifestyle (complete with a luxurious bourgeois apartment, zillions of books, a vibrant social life, and plenty of hot sex), the more he sympathizes not only with the lovely Christa-Maria, but also with her lover, Dreyman. Then, after listening to Dreyman play a piece of music called “Sonata for a Good Man” on the piano and discovering the poems of Bertolt Brecht, Wiesler is spontaneously transformed into “a good man” himself and begins falsifying his reports to protect the couple from the Stasi and the minister. Tragic events ensue, both Christa-Maria and Wiesler sacrifice themselves, each in their own way, but Dreyman survives unharmed until reunification and dedicates his latest novel – appropriately entitled Sonata for a Good Man – to his invisible guardian angel. Not exactly a happy ending, but certainly a redemptive one that makes everyone feel really, really good about themselves.

Continued here…

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