The German Democratic republic, that is to say Communist East Germany of the old days, was a forbidding place. Now and again, I used to go there, mostly to visit the Berliner Ensemble theatre under Helene Weigel, the widow of Brecht and an old harpy too. The menace in the air was palpable. In the street, people would offer to buy the clothes you were wearing, to change money, asking to be smuggled out, and the supposition was always that they worked for the Stasi, the Communist equivalent of the Gestapo. Everyone was afraid all the time, and that was true of Helene Weigel and her company of actors too. They had lived under dictatorship of one kind or another since 1933, and you could not help wanting to shout “Stop!” at history.
The movie The Lives of Others is a fitting memorial to this hateful atmosphere, and a great work of art. The dilemma of East German writers and actors is portrayed exactly as it was. They had to obey the demands the Communist Party made of them. This meant prostitution of their talents, and often of their bodies in the case of women. The majority took the line of least resistance, but a few had the courage to become dissidents, and some committed suicide. Something like a fifth of the population was employed by the Stasi as secret policemen or informants. The movie also captures the miserable poverty of Communist Berlin. That was almost as lowering to the spirits as the human degradation. At the time, East Germany was said to have a successful economy, the tenth largest in the world. After its collapse, the finance minister Günter Mittag was to tell me that the country had always been virtually bankrupt, and he had never dared reveal his lying about it, especially not to Erich Honecker, the Party boss.
The story-line offers a Stasi operative ordered to spy on a writer and others suspected, quite rightly, of dissidence. In the course of his foul work, this policeman has a change of heart, and does what he can to save his putative victims from prison and ruin. No such Stasi man ever existed, or could have existed, but never mind, the character serves the admirable purpose of dramatising how a totalitarian system traps everyone into life-and-death choices about how to handle the evil it enforces.
Moving the plot is also a minister loosely identifiable as General Erich Mielke, the man in charge of the Stasi, a murderer, bully, rapist, and finally a fool. His office in the Normannenstrasse in Berlin is now preserved for the curious, with its bust of Lenin, its cheap furniture and a mammoth safe for stolen cash or documents. In the building are miles and miles of shelves with Stasi files, and those concerned can consult this X-ray of totalitarianism in action. How come, the dissident writer in the movie has the chance finally to ask, that government came into the hands of such a person? Here is a movie that for once tells the truth, and does it really well.