What's Wrong with "The Lives of Others" - or Not


"The Lives of Others" has now hit American screens and everyone seems to love it. (My Hollywood Reporter colleagues are in town and I got into a knock-down drag-out with the chief reviewer who really loved the movie and thinks it could even beat "Pan," which is clearly the front runner - on the other hand, why not?)

However, what most Americans don't know are the East/West aspects that were much discussed here when the film first came out. A while after the movie was released, I had a beer with a Polish friend of mine and her Former-East German husband, and the topic of "The Lives of Others" came up.

It was hard to say exactly what about the movie made our East German friend most angry. I think the main problem most East Germans have with it is that, well, they didn’t make it. Being a movie made in West Germany by West Germans (who based it not on East German history, but on the opera "Tosca"), it was inevitable that some East Germans would be upset.

Many East Germans feel that a film about the Stasi should tell the historical truth about their past, so the world will know. They have a point. The East Germans are generally neglected and pooh-poohed. In fact, in West Germany there is an underlying scorn of East Germans which is hard to explain. The cliché about East Germans is that they are lazy no-goods who want nothing more but to live from the state, but if you look around at the most prominent, successful people in West Germany, you see that many of them are East Germans, including Germany's top soccer player, Germany's top rock band and Germany's chancellorette Angela Merkel. There is more unemployment in East Germany than West, but to judge by the East Germans I know in Berlin, all of whom are better employed and more proactive than the average West German in Berlin, that has more to do with the economy than with their laziness.

Still, the West Germans continue to disparage East Germans. Here's my latest InstaTheory on the subject: West Germans are angry at East Germans.

Why? Because the West always loved pointing to East Germans as a combination of "Good-Germans-because-they-are-not-as-materialistic-as-we-are" on the one hand and "Our-poor-relatives-we-can-look-down-on-and- patronize-and-feel-sorry-for-and-superior-to." Much of the German feeling of self-worth is derived from being able to patronize others, and now, after East Germany's successful revolution and entry into the wealthy West, they have betrayed all that. How could West Germans ever forgive them for that?

Anyway, back to the East German reaction to "The Lives of Others." At our table, two explanations were given for why it was a bad, even an evil film. I listened closely, and the more I listened, the more confused I got. There were two main reasons given for why it was a false portrayal of East Germans:

Reason 1: It wasn't that bad. "The Stasi wasn't as powerful as it is portrayed in the film. If you read protocols of public speeches, you will be surprised at how much criticism was made publicly of the system. It was possible to criticize the system without getting in trouble. And an actress of that stature, like the character played by Martina Gedeck in the film, could never be so easily blackmailed. If a minister tried to force her into giving him sex, as it happens in the film, all she had to do was tell the head of the cultural ministry and that guy would be gone for good."

Reason 2: It was much worse. "No one wants to know the truth about how the Stasi was. The main Stasi officer in the film is portrayed as having a heart and turning into a kind human being. Anyone who lived in East Germany could tell you that that was impossible. No one gets into such a high position in politics without being completely ruthless and being 100% conform with the system. No real Stasi officer would sacrifice his career to save that woman. Politics were involved in this film. The West German filmmakers consulted with former Stasi officers on how the Stasi was – of course they're going to tell you that it wasn't as bad as it was."

I personally see a contradiction here. Was the reality worse or better than portrayed in the film? Or is there another reason why East Germans disapprove of it? Maybe because the portrayal of East Germany has fallen into West German hands, and East Germans have not yet found a way to retaliate in a way that is sexy enough to get people interested?

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