'I Remembered': Saluting 'The Lives of Others'

A film hailed as the top conservative movie in 25 years enjoyed two showings in D.C. recently, this summer at the Goethe-Institute – the German cultural center in Washington, D.C. – and again last week at The Heritage Foundation’s new House-side building. For Heritage, it was beginning of a new conservative film club they’ve started – yet another reason why it’s great to live in D.C. The club was inspired by a February 2009 list of the top 25 conservative films of the last 25 years that National Review writer and BH contributor John Miller (no relation, people) compiled. The movie, “The Lives of Others,” was the list’s number one film.


For those unfamiliar with the 2007 Foreign Film Oscar winner “The Lives of Others,” it is a German thriller about the Stasi in 1984 East Germany, the then-Communist German Democratic Republic. The Stasi, GDR’s Ministry of State Security, enforced Party policy and loyalty of speech and action. The goal of the Stasi was to know everything, and they did so through an extensive network of agents and informants that touched the lives of everyone in the GDR.

In “The Lives of Others,” a strong, mournful Soviet-influenced string soundtrack accompanies an equally Soviet-influenced plot. East Germany’s lone socialist playwright with both talent and loyalty, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), becomes the target of heavy surveillance when a high-up GDR official falls for his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) and wants him removed. Loyal socialist Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) oversees the surveillance operation to find fault with the socialist artist. But as the hypocrisy of his GDR comrades drives him from faith in the Party, and the faultlessness of his playwright subject leaves him sympathetic, Wiesler begins to question his allegiances, and as Dreyman grows subversive, Wiesler is forced to make a choice – between a Party of falsehood and a man of merit.

First-time director (and story screenwriter) Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck drained the color from the film, save those moments of happiness between Georg and his girlfriend Christa-Maria. Dull grays and pale blues emphasize the drab atmosphere that pervades hopeless East Germany.

Choosing a foreign film as the “best” seems like something that Hollywood establishment would do rather than a magazine like NRO, but they aren’t the only conservatives to call it a masterpiece: William F. Buckley, Jr. was a big fan.

While the film is not based on a historical event, the film accurately portrays Stasi-inflicted fear and influence. Some of the actors in the film were a part of the cultural movement in East Germany in the 1980s, and it shows through powerful performances. Lead actor Mühe, when asked how he prepared for his role as a Stasi officer, said simply: “I remembered.”

The film is important for more than artistic reasons however. According to Uwe Spiekermann, a deputy director of the German Historical Institute, “Lives of Others” was the first film from East Germany to portray the Stasi in a serious light, instead of mocking them in comic farce.

John O. Koehler wrote in “Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police” that the Stasi employed “102,000 full-time officers and noncommissioned personnel on its rolls, including 11,000 members of the ministry’s own special guards regiment. Between 1950 and 1989, a total of 274,000 persons served in the Stasi.”

Including informants, the Stasi network reached into the lives of every East German.

“The Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people,” Koehler quotes Simon Wiesenthal of Vienna, Austria, a Nazi hunter. “The Gestapo had 40,000 officials watching a country of 80 million, while the Stasi employed 102,000 to control only 17 million.”

With its network of informants, the Stasi had a spy over every 66 citizens, and an informer for every 6.5 citizens. “It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests,” Koehler said. He concludes that the communist oppression by the Stasi was, while not as heinous as the attempted extermination of the Jews, as brutal in its oppression as the Nazis. This number is shocking, yet even more shocking is the habit of cultural elites in the United States to hail dictators like Hugo Chavez as democratic leaders, while their artistic kin from across the globe were jailed for speaking the truth about such people. Among punishable crimes in the GDR was engaging in “propaganda hostile to the state,” something artists in the United States should be ashamed to have supported when they defended communism in the past, and when they do so now.

There’s my sermon. I’ll leave you with Buckley’s final words on the film:

“I looked at the record and was gratified to find, in the critics’ files, encomiums absolutely unconfined in their admiration of this movie, which in fact won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. And I was unsurprised to find that what seems the whole of East Germany is riven by its impact. Since so many East Germans were complicit in the postwar reign of the German Democratic Republic, there is a corporate national shame at the betrayal of life, as so brazenly done by so many millions, but whose country, at least, has given the world this holy vessel of expiation.”


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