Monday, 21 June 2010

Lives of Others

I put 'The Lives of Others' on the Lovefilm list ages ago, and as usual had forgotten why I thought it was interesting or even what the story was. It turned out to be in German (took us a while to get the subtitles on) and set in East Germany a few years prior to the fall of the Berlin wall. It follows the tale of a member of the secret police who is charged with surveillance of a popular playwright and his actress girlfriend. The man starts off as a hard line party man but as he observes them he becomes more and more sympathetic to their efforts to hold on to a sense of integrity in the face of state control of all aspects of people's lives. And as he changes I found myself becoming more sympathetic to him too. It wasn't that he changed his attitudes but that he came to understand that an alternative viewpoint was not necessarily a damaging thing. Although it was quite hard work to watch it was very interesting in terms of the picture it portrays of eastern europe and the political oppression that was so invasive. Dreyman, the playwright, struggles with the balancing act of what he is permitted to write and to support his friend who has been blacklisted, while his girlfriend Christa-Maria has to tussle (quite literally) with the unwelcome attentions of a senior politician who can end her career with a word. The film is a good balance between the human drama and the political situation, and the impossible decisions such an environment puts on people. It ends with the fall of the wall and the changed fortunes of all the characters, and the politician points out to the playwright how hard it is to write when you have nothing to rebel against.

It made me reflect on the only occasion that I visited East Germany, coincidentally in 1984 when the film is set. I went with my college course and we were only visitors so did not really have any contact with local people. My impression was one of the distinct contrast between West and East Berlin, but that East Berlin was very clean and tidy, no rubbish in the streets or grafitti, very few cars, well kept blocks of flats contrasting with piles of rubble that remained from WW2 bombing, and long queues of people waiting to buy newspapers. I always felt it had been an important experience to go the 'the east', it was somewhere viewed during that period with suspicion and fear, and in reality it was quite ordinary. The film gave me a view of an aspect that you can't see on the surface, but that whatever role people might have had in the system they were still human beings.

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