July 4th, 2011
It’s not very often that I watch a movie anymore. It’s been a few years since I’ve actually purchased one (normally I see them from Netflix). But yesterday I saw one that may change that.
The Lives of Others is an incredible film set in the former East Germany (GDR/DDR) mostly in 1984. The authenticity of it is incredible and so is the story. It’s subtitled, but if you’re an American wary of subtitled European films, don’t be wary of this one. It is easy to watch and worth every minute.
The story revolves around the Stasi, the GDR Ministry for State Security (“secret police”). It is an incredible picture of what living in a police state was like, and how many of the informants were victims of the regime too.
My breath caught near the beginning of the film, showing the inside of a Stasi building. A prisoner was being interrogated for helping someone attempt to escape to the west. But the reason my breath caught was this incredible feeling of “I was there”. Last year, Terah and I were in Leipzig and visited the Stasi museum there, Museum in der “Runden Ecke”. I always have an incredible sense of history when being in a preserved place, and this building was literally the Stasi headquarters for Leipzig. Much of it was preserved intact, and seeing it in the film brought home even more vividly the terrible things that happened in that building, and others like it, not so very long ago.
We watched the special features on the Blu-Ray disc, and one of them was an interview with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. He described how he spent a lot of time interviewing both victims of the Stasi, as well as ex-Stasi officers. One of the most disturbing things to me was his almost offhand comment that most of the former Stasi officers still had some “pride” in performing their jobs well. Even now, freed of the state’s ideology, they were proud of the work they did — which could be put most charitably as ruining people’s lives.
What leads a person to view life that way? How can we try to make sure it doesn’t happen again elsewhere?
I am happy to say that most of us have never experienced anything like the Stasi. And yet, small reflections of that mindset can be seen almost everywhere. Societies at wartime or feeling under threat, even Western democracies, can drum up those feelings. In the USA, for instance, the McCarthyism era saw people’s careers ruined for alleged anti-state behavior. Contemporary examples include the indefinite “detention” (I hate that word; shouldn’t we say “imprisonment”?) of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, and the terrible treatment of Bradley Manning, who revealed some true but embarrassing things about the US military — which really needed to be revealed. Even tobacco farmers and companies are selling a product they know ruins lives, but somehow keep doing it.
And there are still members of the public that try to make life difficult for people that don’t think like they do. From organizing campaigns of telephone harassment of colleges that don’t perform the American national anthem before sporting events, to tossing about the term “un-American” (a loaded McCarthyist one, which many may not even be aware) at an inflated rate, we are not immune from attempts at forcing conformity or silence in others, and blind loyalty to state.
I am never in a particularly celebratory mood on July 4, the biggest day for American boasting, faux patriotism, militarism, and general flag-waving. We do have a lot to be proud of and thankful for, but it seems that we celebrate all the wrong things on July 4, and see it as an occasion to proclaim American exceptionalism rather than as one to see how far we’ve come and bolster hope for how far we can, and should, yet go.
No, I don’t think that the “land of the free” ought to have operated secret prisons in Europe (nor the Europeans to have been complicit in it), or that the American military was “defending our freedom” 100% of the time they were deployed, or that it is right for governments to mandate daily recitation of an untrue document (the pledge of allegiance) in schools.
And yet, I am mindful that I have a lot to be thankful for — stability, lack of much internal violent conflict, etc. And this particular day I am happy that a post like this is not something that gets the attention of some government agency – and mostly that I will have a handful of angry emails to delete.