13 May 2013

Monday Film Review: Tapping In, Helping Out

This film is a little old, but still a powerful punch of morality in the Soviet realm.  If you haven't seen Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), you need to view it as soon as possible.  It was the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007 and though I can't speak for the other contenders, this movie was worth every bit of its weight in Oscar gold.  Even my parents loved it, and they are not inclined to love communist things.  I can't remember if I picked it or not.

This film would be an excellent introduction to the moral landscape of life in East Germany.  It's not perfect by any means, but for anyone who's only heard of East Germany and the Berlin Air Lift, it's a good start.  Not to say it doesn't give something for the seasoned, knowledgeable viewer.  I cried.  Oh my word, did I cry.  I cry whenever I read about Stasi interference, and to see it?  Please excuse me while I cry rivers.

via nyu.edu
There's only so much I can say about the plot without ruining it.  Ulrich Mühe plays Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, who is an expert Stasi officer assigned to bug and spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (played by Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).  Georg is unaware he's being eavesdropped by the Stasi because he is staunchly pro-Communist, as well as successful and recognized for his work.  However, the Minister of Culture is interested in Christa-Maria and uses the Stasi to pull Georg out of the scene.  Gerd, a highly principled and ideological man, becomes aware of this situation and begins to change his actions.  This marks the beginning of Gerd's disillusionment and change of heart, which occurs just as Georg becomes disillusioned himself.  Georg's friends and colleagues are blacklisted and their treatment turns him away from the ideology that had driven his work and success.  At this moment, both the victim and the formerly willing tool of persecution become accomplices.  As Georg acts subversively, Gerd protects him and tries to preserve his relationship with Christa-Maria, though this takes an unexpected turn.

There has been a lot of criticism about the film (mostly by victims of the Stasi), particularly since Gerd, a perpetrator of the regime's abuse of power, is made to be a hero.  It has been said this humanizes the Stasi and softens the public view on their work in keeping the state in power.  This is partly true because it has been said that there was no Gerd in the DDR. I think it's precisely because Gerd becomes softened and subversive that the Stasi looks incredibly cruel.  Gerd is continually shown to be an exception and alienated after hearing the "Sonata vom Guten Menschen" (Sonata for a Good Man).  Burned into my mind is the scene when Gerd listens to Georg and Christa-Maria having sex and soon after, he has a prostitute visit him in his über-DDR apartment.  The sense of loneliness is palpable and the juxtaposition of such a loving, fulfilling sexual moment between lovers with the emptiness Gerd experiences brings it home.  Like a childish mimic, he tries to obtain that fulfillment, though he is only confronted with his loneliness.  Watching it, I keenly felt that emptiness.  It's a simple scene, but the actors place the emotions so accurately that you feel how Gerd's previous choices have isolated him from his own humanity.

Additionally, Gerd's a hero because he chases after what he believe to be right and good, which changed after learning the truth.  Gerd's character is not meant to excuse the choices made by Stasi officers, but to place faith in the repentant sinner.  It's true that bureaucracy prevented any second-guessing or changing track in reality, but I never took the film as an accurate depiction in the first place.  My feeling is that Gerd doesn't stand in for the Stasi, but for the German people.  The complacency and cooperation of ordinary German citizens (one in 50 informed!) has been troubling for Germans, especially since it was right on the tail of the SS.  Gerd is a conflicted man, since he was not fully innocent, and presents both sides of the German story: a willing persecutor, an idealist, inconsistent in decisions, and a victim.  As I repeat time and time again, Václav Havel points up the duality of complicity and victimhood in Soviet citizens.  When Gerd's insolence is discovered, he's shoved into the lowest Stasi position available.  This mirrors blacklisted (persona non grata) people's treatment and shows penance.  This is why I think of Gerd more as a representative figure than an imagined one, since it speaks more to the collective German experience than to a person that actually existed or even could have existed.  Georg becomes disillusioned at the same point Gerd does, and his character represents another aspect of the German experience in the DDR, making their journey of disillusionment a more complete story of that experience.  There's more to the story than good vs. evil; it's a continuous wrestling match between good and poor choices, whose effects are not wholly anticipated.  In a system that bureaucratized every decision, it was a wrestle that didn't relent even when the walls came down, which becomes clear in the final scenes of the film.

**It may be interesting to note Ulrich's actual life story when you consider the character he played (it's a total spoiler, though!):  it says a lot about the work when the actor, who suffered a similar fate in real life, plays the non-existent hero.**