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May 04, 2007
The Lives of Others,2006: Dir Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
A brief report and range of web links on this recently released film in the UK which was hugely successful in Germany and won an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.
This film about the practices of the Stasi, the communist East German secret police, won a "Lola" award for best film as well as in six other categories.
The recent release of The Lives of Others has prompted some interesting reviews on BBC News 24 and a very interesting article by Anna Funder the author of Stasiland (2003) in the May 07 edition of Sight & Sound the British Film institute monthly magazine.
The purpose of this current posting is just to flag up the film and its importance not only to those interested in Central and Eastern European affairs but also in the possibilities of subversion and change. Funder's article explores the possibilities of whther Donnersmarck's film in allowing for the possibilities of change and redemption is overoptimistic.
In the film a Stasi officer Wiesler who is assigned to surveillance of a playright eventual starts to cover up the indiscretions of the playright. The surveillance is instituted by a jealous bureaucrat who wants the woman back from the playright. In reality the whole situation becomes one of human agents manipulating and resisting systems of power.
Inevitably there are comparisons with the Holocaust and the role of Schindler. Donnersmarck has apparently claimed that Schindler was partially an inspiration for the film. in an atmosphere where the memories of the hated Stasi are still strong and where many ex-Stasi members according to funder are openly defending their position and aggressively demonstrating against memorial institutions and those investigating the role of the Stasi. in the sight and sound article Funder notes the increasing 'belligerence' of these people and comments about their response on the launch of her book in Leipzig:
... a phalanx of ex-Stasi or Party members placed themselves in the front row, glaring at me during the proceedings, muttering aggressively and taking furious notes. At question time I expected a discussion, but they sidled out before they could be engaged in debate. (Funder, Sight & Sound May 07 p 19).
Funder notes that the film has gained critics in Germany because they point out that Schindler wasn't part of the Nazi machine as such, he was a private citizen with a business which was forced to use slave labour. There was no Schindler in the real Stasi they say precisely because the Stasi was a state machine with all its members entirely ideologically controlled without a crack.
At a theoretical level one can be reminded of Foucault's ruminations on power in which the possibility for the reversal of the flow of power is always available. At the theoretical level it allows for the possibility of human agency and the whole debate falls into the classic tension between structure and agency within society. amongst all the thousands of Stasi over the years it is hard to believe that some were not willing to turn a blind eye against infractions for one reason or another whther through greed or a spark of humanity connecting with another person.
Here I'm reminded of an extract from a piece by Primo Levi a survivor of the camps which was part of a literature course I was on many years ago. In the extract a concentration camp guard eyes met those of his intended Jewish victim and in a brief flash of humanity a strange connectivity between the two people the guard neglected his 'duty' and failed to kill the victim. It is a story which which underpins and exonerates the position that Donnersmarck has taken in the film. Perhaps in the course of time we will find out what little acts of mercy slipped through the system.
The film raises all those questions about citizens caught up in an authoritarian strong state regime. Please note I'm avoiding the term totalitarian here for it espouses a certain political philosophical position emanating from people such as Hannah Arendt which is questionable. Indeed the extent of collaboration and collusion, the possibilities of 'internal exile' where individuals withdraw as much as possible from the activities of the state in which they find themselves as unwilling members are all questions which arise from the film.
In the UK at least the film gives us the opportunity to raise the issue of whether there are too many security cameras watching UK citizens. Ironically I suspect that there are either not enough or they are targeted in the wrong places and they are used in a class based sense to protect that which is already well protected which is expensive property in city centres and other places. They aren't generally on motorways stopping the managerial classes speeding around at 120mph. Neither are they protecting the working classes from the lumpen elements within their midst in the housing estates often swarming with badly behaved teenagers who have no idea what to do with themselves and with little respect for themselves or anybody else. Whilst the film has resonances in Britain because of the actual and perceived social issues of public disorder and systems of control it seems more appropriate to keep this issue separate from The Lives of Others.
After its opening in the UK Lives of Other's was hitting the top spot in the ratings according to Time Out of April 25 2007 on the three day ratings chart. This makes a change from people gormlessly queing for cotton 'free' shopping bags (Sainsburys by Anya Hindmarsh, or 'Kate Moss' clothing presumably designed by others in reality. Ideology is at its strongest when people don't recognise it!)
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Lives of Others
Sight and Sound May 2007 review of Lives of Others
Feature and discussion with Donnersmarck in Time Out
Guardian Blog on Lives of Others
From Politics Central review of Lives of Others
Oscar best foreign film nomination report 1
Oscar best foregn film nomination report 2
Guardian report on Warsaw best European film awards won by Lives of Others
Extract from the Guardian of Funder's book Stasiland
Interview with Anna Funder in World Press Review
Talk and Q & A between Funder RMIT journalism students at the Fifth Estate