December 9, 2007

The Lives of Others: A Review

On one who made it to the other side

The Statistics Office on Hans Beimler Street counts everything, knows everything. How many shoes I buy a year: 2.3. How many books I read: 3.2. And how many pupils graduate with straight A's every year: 6347. But there is one thing they don't count, may be because even bureaucrats find it painful, and that's suicides. If you call Beimler Street to ask how many people between the Elbe and the Oder, between the Baltic Sea and the Ore Mountains, despair drove to their deaths, our numbers oracle is silent. But it may just note your name for State Security, those gray men who ensure safety in our land, and happiness.

In 1977, our country stopped counting suicides. They called them "self-murderers". But it has nothing to do with murder. It knows no blood lust, no heated passion. It knows only death. the death of all hope. When we stopped counting, only one country in Europe drove more people to death: Hungary. We came next, the land of "Real Existing Socialism".

One of the uncounted is Albert Jerska, the great director. It's him I want to talk about today ...

--- Georg Dreyman (played by Sebastian Koch) in The Lives of Others (2006).

After observing a row of books by Ayn Rand on my shelf, my Fabian guest remarked that Rand was a simpleton, a teenage idol, undeserving of a place in a grown-up's library. He dismissed her writings with a wave of hand, declaring, "Caricatures of life under communism, imagined by an immature mind." Imaginations of life in the killing fields of Mao Zedong, Pinochet, and Pol Pot. Imaginations of life on the lam for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdie, and Taslima Nasreen. Imaginations of what life is, and will be, under the Ahmadinejads, the Chavezes, and the Putins, the dictators basking in the warmth of their oil windfalls. Then, I saw Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others], a stunning film written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Imagine a woman in her thirties, who knows only one thing, and who has done only one thing — act in plays. She has won many an accolade for her performances. Her audience loved her, and she loved her audience. Acting is her life, and a life without acting will not be life, but only death. She loves a man deeply, too, and would like very much to remain faithful to him for as long as she lived.

One day, as she walks to her lover's apartment, a car drives by and stops. A powerful man, a man she knows well, a man she loathes with all her heart. He's high up there, among the men who have the power to decide if she could act, the power to decide if she could love. The man commands her to get into the car. She obeys. She must, for, her life depended on her obedience.

As she gets into the car, he tells her that if she did not need him as much as he needed her, she might leave. At once, and he would not stop her. She knows that she will not, he knows that she will not, and she knows that he knows. She hates every inch of herself as he rapes her. Then, he drops her off at her lover's doorsteps and drives away. Tomorrow, he'll praise her in the Politburo for her valuable services to the cause of socialism. Without uttering a word to her lover, she enters his apartment. She showers, and showers again, foolishly hoping to wash the socialist semen off her.

Now, close your eyes and imagine you are that actor.

Imagine an aging director. The plays he has directed are famous, both among the rulers and the ruled. With practice, he has perfected the art of camouflaging dangerous ideas, so he is not seen as the enemy of the State. With every play he directs, it's welling up in him slowly. An uncontrollable anger. A sense of impotence. Nausea.

Then he can't take it anymore. For once, he lets himself go, and let them have it all. Once is enough, though. Enough to discredit him as the bourgeoisie. The stooge of the imperialists. A traitor to the socialist cause. No one will dare to let him step on to their stage anymore. His friends are afraid to invite him to their parties. They cannot allow themselves to be seen in his company. Not if they wanted to have their careers, their lives, intact.

He spends every hour, from dawn to dawn, alone, locked up inside his own apartment. With little or no human contact. The hope, the hope that tomorrow everyone will be free, wanes slowly. Then death comes to him. The death of the human spirit. The death of hope. Suicide.

Now, close your eyes and imagine you are that director.

Imagine a writer. The woman's lover. The director's friend. He is still a believer, but he too is passionate about what he does - writing plays. His plays are brilliant, but harmless. They are not seen as threats to the society that the few who know what is best for the others, want to engineer and build.

His audience regularly included powerful men and women. The Minister of Culture. The Heads of Departments. Officers of the Stasi. He has friends from the other side, too. Friends who admired his creative talent and his humanity. After all, he is not one of those who ostracized the director from their social circles. One day he sees his lover alight from the car of the powerful Minister of Culture. Friends cannot trust friends, lovers cannot trust lovers, a lesson learnt never too soon in his classless society.

Then, he learns more. Rivals in high places can have eyes and ears anywhere they like. Nothing in his life, not even the most intimate acts between lovers can escape their attention. Every breath, every word, every movement of his, is noted and recorded by unseen men and women, as they eagerly wait for one mis-step. He doesn't fail them. And, he will be saved only by the death of his lover, the silent rebellion of a conscientious objector, and the crumbling of a wall. How can he pay them back for his life-after? Will a sonnet written in tears do?

Now, close your eyes and imagine you are that playwright.

Perhaps, the Lives of Others is only a caricature of Erich Honecker's Germany, an imagination of an immature mind, as that of Ayn Rand. Perhaps, the midnight knocks on Taslima Nasreen's door that I wrote about are just figments of imagination of my immature mind. Perhaps, I should stop writing and sleep now, so that when I wake up tomorrow, I'll know that my life, my dreams, and my nightmares are mine alone. At least in the country where I sleep. For now.

1 comment :
  1. Very moving, though I don't know how many people will appreciate this. I am not being condescending at all, only that I think that the Cold War and the WWII are mere chapters in World History that youngsters have to read about. They find no relation to today;s reality. the freedom that has been won is least appreciated in the free countries. People still clamor for more Government actions, without realising how dangerous is the power vested on it.
    I think this belief in political system will move in a flux: communism will return as a force, and some countries will again become red. After a few decades of this, the world will again wake up and abolish Communism. till the next cycle.

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