Orwellian Realities


FilmStruck has five titles available to view as part of a Behind the Iron Curtain theme. I originally set out to write about Barbara (2012) as it’s an interesting and unfairly overlooked gem dealing with a family doctor banished from East Berlin to a rural community. I still have a great poster for Barbara showing her riding a bike against a dark green backdrop of grass and trees, casting a suspicious look behind her. I’m shifting gears, however, and delving instead into The Lives of Others (2006). The Lives of Others won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year and was a box office success story. Deservedly so, as it’s a rich and poignant film full of universal truths. It’s also that rare film with humanistic traits that elevate human welfare and art without resorting to treacle. It’s a movie that celebrates music, poetry, literature, and it culminates with both epiphany and the celebration of human dignity, sealed with a perfect ending – one that still brings a tear to my eye.

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was born in 1973 in West Germany to a globetrotting aristocratic family and is a polyglot who can speak five languages. At six feet and eight inches in height, I imagine he strikes quite an impressive pose. It was at a 1977 MoMA screening of Varieté, a German silent film drama from 1925 directed by Ewald André Dupont, that the four or five year old Donnersmarck got the film bug. He had mistakenly expected to see Doctor Dolittle (1967), and instead walked into a story about a trapeze artist, circus life, erotic side-shows, betrayals and seduction. Would two and a half hours with Dr. John Dolittle have inspired him in similar ways? We’ll never know, although it’s interesting to think about how his first short film revolves around a man being chased by a dog.

Das Leben der Anderen

Donnersmarck studied at the same Munich film school that is alma mater to Wim Wenders, and his first foray into the world of film festivals came with an award-winning short student film called Dobermann (1999). Dobermann has a running time of four minutes and Donnersmarck wrote, produced, edited and directed. Four other names get a credit, for music, cinematography and one actor: Phillipp Kewenig, who would also get a small role in Das Leben der Anderen (aka: The Lives of Others) seven years later. From a four minute short to a 137-minute Oscar-winning thriller, that’s one helluva a jump.

Das Leben der Anderen

The Lives of Others takes place during the Cold War and revolves around an East German playwright, George Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who is being spied upon by a Stasi official, Haputmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), aka: HGW WW/7. At this point I’d like to cut to an excerpt from Jim Palmer’s essay “The Lives of Others and the Individuation of HGW XX/7,” which includes an astonishing footnote:

The year is 1984, and the Orwellian significance of the date is reinforced by the legend that opens the film.2 The Stasi, the East German secret police, is described as a “force of 100,000 employees and 200,000 informers [that] safeguards the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Its declared goal: ‘To know everything.’” Big Brother is everywhere and little brothers infest the populace. As historian Tony Judt describes the scope of the state security bureaucracy, “Husbands spied on wives, professors reported on students, priests informed on their parishioners. There were files on 6 million residents of former East Germany, one in three of the population.”3

3. Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penquin Books, 2005), p. 698. Judt’s statistics provide a chilling context for the controversial back-story to the film. When Ulrich Mühe died of stomach cancer in July, 2007, the Associated Press wire story, Thursday, July 26, 2007, offered the following comment: “The role [of Gerd Wiesler] had particular resonance for Muele [sic], who was under surveillance by the Stasi when he was a star of East German theater. He later discovered that his then-wife, German actress Jenny Groellmann [sic], was registered as an informant for the Stasi during their years of marriage. Groellman [sic], who died last year of cancer, had denied she was an informant.”

Donnersmarck’s auspicious film debut took three years to make and paid great attention to detail, using actual Stasi equipment and props on loan from museums and private collections. The director was not alone in this desire, as the props master, a man who had been held in a Stasi prison for two years, also insisted on authenticity. I can only guess at the kind of déjà vu shock former East Germans might have received upon watching this film. And speaking of déjà vu, with all the fear-mongering going on nowadays, talk of building a giant wall, “alternative facts,” and N.S.A. surveillance of public communications and emails, The Lives of Others remains extremely relevant. Perhaps that’s why it’s not surprising to learn that Donnersmarck, who has been largely quiet other than a slight detour with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie (The Tourist, 2010), now has three projects in development this year, including a remake of The Lives of Others.

Pablo Kjolseth

4 Responses Orwellian Realities
Posted By Susan Gordon : February 5, 2017 1:38 am

I’ve recommended this brilliant film to many people.

Posted By Doug : February 5, 2017 10:39 am

“You say Stasi, I say Nazi-let’s call the whole thing off.”
Sorry about that.
I’m reminded of that scene in Ninotchka taking place in Ninotchka’a Moscow apartment where any neighbor could walk through the apartment at any time as everyone is spying on everyone else and no one is above suspicion.
The East/West Germany dichotomy has been replayed many times throughout history-one autocratic group comes to power and maintains that power by holding a populace in thrall (East Germany, USSR, Cuba, Nazi Germany, etc). Those who wish to remain free will escape and survive elsewhere (West Germany, Baltic states, Miami, England/USA). The good news is that every such Authority rules for only so long before their Jenga empire comes tumbling down. Because Man desires to live Free.
I expect that we will see a free Cuba in the next decade-that tiny island is overripe and rotting under the Castros.

Posted By swac44 : February 6, 2017 9:04 am

Fascinating film, from a time and place that has yielded films of great intrigue, from Montgomery Clift’s final film The Defector (the physical toll of which probably hastened his demise) and Funeral in Berlin to Goodbye Lenin!, in which a young man’s mother comes out of a coma years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but he must keep up the illusion that she’s living in the East Berlin of old to avoid her suffering from shock.

Barbara is also of special note for me, as it is the last film ever screened in 35mm in my hometown (at the Atlantic Film Festival), before the local theatre chain mothballed its final film projection system for good. As a result, those images of the title character riding her bicycle through a lush East German countryside hold a special significance as the last pixel-free screening I’ll ever see here.

Posted By kjolseth : February 6, 2017 3:06 pm

What a heart-breaking story re: BARBARA. At least you were aware of what you were watching at the time. I’m guessing most people don’t even know what the last 35mm print to screen in their hometown was unless it was highlighted by the theater. I’m lucky to be screening about twenty-five 35mm prints over the course of the next three months.

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