The Lives of Others

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.

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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.

Categories: Freedom, Movies, Politics

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Comments Feed18 Comments

  1. Asheesh Laroia

    Wise, thoughtful words. Thank you for them.

    Reply

  2. Enrico Zini

    Hello John,

    that is indeed an outstanding film. I still recall seeing it on cinema and feeling the impact both of the contents and of the quality of the film itself.

    Where you say: “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.[…] And yet, small reflections of that mindset can be seen almost everywhere.”, I can point to this answer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

    There are shocking documentaries people made just by replicating the experiment nowadays: they are shocking because you don’t really, really, deeply understand what you read on wikipedia until you actually see it.

    I recall this BBC documentary (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kk4bz)
    did a good job of it, and I’m happy to see that the relevant parts can be found on youtube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcvSNg0HZwk
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzTuz0mNlwU
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmFCoo-cU3Y

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I was familiar with the Milgram experiment; I do yet need to watch your links though (thanks for them). Milgram noted that most (all?) of the subjects raised objections at some point, even though most completed it. In the Stasi case, raising objections was probably not a career-preserving (or life-preserving) move. So the part that got me is that, if they had objections, they seem to have long-ago repressed them. (Or perhaps hold them in some sort of “suspense account”, still taking pride in being an efficient worker or something.)

    Reply

  3. FUZxxl

    It’s interesting to see someone not from Germany watching this movie. Thank you for your insightful thoughts about this. I have absolutly the same opinion about this.

    Reply

  4. Joey Hess

    Your relating of tobacco farming with “Even now, freed of the state’s ideology, they were proud of the work they did” really stuck home with me. I worked in tobacco before it was technically legal for me to be working — it was for a while how our family put food on the table. At the time all I knew about tobacco is that it was pretty nasty to be around — and produced a bit of a high when I got tobacco gum all over my hands. And it paid for my first computer. Now like anyone I know how bad tobacco is, but I still find myself taking pride in that early sweat work. Amazing how much cognitive dissonance humans are capable of.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I hope, Joey, that no offense was taken on your part by that remark – I certainly didn’t intend it. I had no idea somebody that had worked in that field would be reading this, or I would have picked another example. Thank you for the comment though. Having not been in that position myself, I have no good frame of reference; but if I may ask, is that sense of pride from helping to provide for your family — something which at the time looked like a significant moral good?

    Reply

    Peter Samuelson Reply:

    “I had no idea somebody that had worked in that field would be reading this, or I would have picked another example.” – Uh, kudos for the honesty, I guess, but to me this sounds kinda intellectually dodgy. Wouldn’t a better policy be to talk only about things that you would stand behind even if the people you are talking about happen to read your post?

    I’ve figured out over time that if I am tempted to glance around the room to decide whether or not to say something, that’s a clue that I probably shouldn’t say it no matter who is present. Not that I always follow this intuition, alas.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Point taken – you’re right. That was both a clumsy sentiment and worded poorly. I should have given it more thought before typing.

    I do stand behind the comment I made. But tobacco farmers weren’t at the core of my point; they were one somewhat arbitrary example out of many possible examples. My concern was over whether it came across sa a personal attack, which was not my intent.

    John Goerzen Reply:

    There are things in my own life I’d like to change. As an example, I am a petroleum consumer. Such is pretty much unavoidable in modern America. I have taken steps to reduce how much I consume: trying to live within 10 miles of work, trying to ride my bicycle to work, etc. I do ride my bicycle those 10 miles sometimes, but not as often as I’d like, and I see minimizing my petroleum usage as something of ethical importance.

    Reply

  5. Daniel Kahn Gillmor

    Hi John–

    The Lives of Others was a fascinating movie.

    Thanks for drawing the explicit parallels to other forms of state repression. This was not solely an eastern-european problem. Peoples’ lives were very much ruined in the USA as well from similar tactics of informants, persecution, and revenge.

    My great-uncle, Gordon Kahn, was one of the people vilified and blacklisted in the 1940s and ’50s. He fled to Mexico, eventually taking his family with him. His son, Tony Kahn, made a compelling audio documentary of his father’s situation, and of his own, growing up under these circumstances. You can download it and listen to it in 6 parts:

    http://www.wgbh.org/article/?item_id=3625029

    FWIW, as one of your fellow Americans, i share your sentiments about July 4th. We should use it to re-focus on things that we might actually one day be proud of, instead of flag-waving, militarism, and boastful rhetoric. The usual celebrations feel like so much Granfallonery :(

    Thanks for your ethical, grounded perspective.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Thank you very much for that link to the WGBH series. That sounds like a fascinating listen and I will be sure to do just that.

    Reply

  6. Matt

    I have always believed that the founding fathers of our nation wanted somewhere they could live which allowed them to live their life on their own terms. I do strongly agree with a particular verse in America the Beutiful,

    “Confirm thy soul in self-control,
    Thy liberty in law! ”

    What its really saying is that to truly be a land of freedom we should allow for many things, but we must remember not to abuse those freedoms or we lose the point of having those freedoms in the first place.

    For instance, I’d give my son a pocket knife as a tool for many purposes once I or a professional taught him not only the safety and proper use of such a tool, but also to respect the responsibility being placed upon him by having the knife. Disrespecting the responsibility of having the knife by using it to commit crime makes the point of having such a good versatile tool available moot.

    Its the fear of irresponsible people that creates the tyranny of fear of a police state.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Perhaps fear of irresponsible people is one potential cause for the tyranny of fear of a police state, but I don’t think that’s what created the Stasi. If anything, fear of *responsible* people advocating for positive social change was behind that development.

    Reply

    Matt Reply:

    Yes that is probably the true cause, and most likely what the leadership feels, what I’m stating is that Police States tend to advertise their enemies as irresponsible, illogical, insane, against the grain, and etc. This advertising of the behavior as evil and whatnot tends to get them the support they need to actually accomplish their selfish objectives.

    Reply

    Matt Reply:

    To clarify further,

    Police states look to take away freedom from people because they advertise that people will abuse those rights and “good” people won’t do such things anyways. My point is that we have quite a bit of freedom because of how our country was originally set up. We should be careful not to create “reasons” to restrict our freedom if we choose to stay a democratic state. Probably the most important things for us to protect is our rights declared directly in the Bill of Rights. If we use those freedoms with care we can ultimately prevent our country from going south as it were. Don’t give your enemy a weapon as it were.

  7. Buck

    > 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.

    While i can usually sympathize with much of your soul-searching
    about our heedless U.S. patriotism, i’ve got to disagree on this
    account–I mean, revelry, totally heedless of the honoree’s faults,
    is the way we celebrate any birthday. For 364.25 days a
    year, i can harbor my doubts, but i think we owe it to ourselves to
    forget them once a year and think about the nobility of the
    motives espoused in our nation’s Declaration of Independence
    and how they are as aspirational as they are foundational
    principles that continue to bind us in common cause and just
    try to celebrate that fellowship and civic bond for at least one day,
    before we are back to dwelling on our shortcomings at this point in
    our national maturation

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I do see your point, Buck, and if that was what the celebrations looked like, I don’t think I’d have nearly the same problem with it.

    To me, it looks instead like a celebration of American military might, a distortion of history, and an excuse to get drunk, all rolled into one.

    Reply

    Buck Reply:

    OK, so it looks like a 21st birthday party combined with a
    centennial birthday party, thrown for an old warhorse

    Come to think of it, though, i don’t see much martial about
    our 4th-of-July celebrations besides the cannons they use
    to fire off the colorful explosives and martial music,–
    which sound absurd, but i really think it’s just about that
    remote from most of our conceptions of warfare, certain-
    ly in these days of grainy, drone-captured footage of
    precision guided weapons that are either black-and-white
    or false-color infrared, and no red glare in sight, and
    certainly no soldiers parading around to John Philip Sousa
    in frame

    I’ll certainly grant you the drunk and disorderly bit, though.
    It’s just hard to think of any other celebration in our nation
    that you could prefer for its comparative sobriety, except
    for Thanksgiving, which comes freighted with its own political
    baggage nowadays, too

    Reply

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