Politics & Policy

Great Lives

I return from one week’s leave from my column, grateful for my old roost and in the mood to repay a favor by granting one, or attempting to do so. You must have the narrative of what happened one day last week.

I was at work, with an assistant, on a long project, a book about the Goldwater campaign and the events leading up to it. At noon I had an e-mail from my oldest friend, a historian-belletrist, a knighted Englishman, whose message was that I must interrupt whatever I was wasting time on in order to catch a particular movie. The title he gave me was The Lives of Others. My companion hadn’t heard of it either. Still, so urgent was my friend’s recommendation that we instructed Google to advise us where, within reasonable reach, we could find it.

We were given one theater 15 miles east of my study, at an odd hour of the evening. But west about the same distance was a matinee at 4:15. So we threw duty to the winds and arrived at the theater in Mamaroneck, New York, which like most modern theaters husbands five different movies, requiring you to specify which it is you are there to see.

We were ushered into a dark chamber entirely empty. The ticket seller told us that if we had arrived two minutes later, the theater would have been shut. “If there’s no one here, we don’t show the film.”

Two hours and twenty minutes later we came away. The house was still empty. I turned to my companion and said, “I think that is the best movie I ever saw.” He is only 23 years old, but he nodded his agreement.

The movie is German, and in German. There is a prejudice, perhaps understandable, against going to see a movie made in a foreign language. But good subtitle writers capture your mind and heart early in the engagement, and after ten minutes you are as if tuned into your native language. This is so of this German film, which depicts life in Berlin in 1984 under the famous Stasi, who were ten times as numerous as their brother Gestapo had been.

The watchword of the Stasi was information. They would use all their powers, which were plenary, to press their totalitarian thumb down on any expression of life in East Germany. In this case, they had their eye on a playwright who sought to write about the way he and his fellow East Germans lived. To effect their surveillance the Stasi used the most rudimentary tool of social highwaymanry, the listening device. The writer is away from his lair for a day, and no fewer than eight technicians swoop down on his apartment, from which moment there is not a private swallow in the life of the author and his lady and his friends.

Omnipresent in the film is the Stasi officer who is listening to it all, turning the device over to a coadjutor every eight hours, together with notes about the conversations he has overheard during his watch. And then, and then, there is a trickle of humanity, which quickly turns the drama into three parts, Stasi vs. German humankind vs. Stasi. The tension mounts to heart-stopping pitch and I felt the impulse to rush out into the street and drag passersby in to watch the story unfold.

The principal players are captivating, especially the main Stasi officer, who, without a change in aspect of his dour countenance, undergoes this convulsion of the soul, which permits the author life, though without his martyred lady. There is then the sublime vengeance of a published book’s dedication to the redemptive German functionary who briefly interrupted hell in East Germany, pending, finally, the eradication of the terrible Berlin Wall.

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.

© Universal Press Syndicate


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