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An authentic distortion of history

The Lives of Others, the much-hyped and award-winning film, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, has just hit the British cinema screens. It is cleverly made, with excellent acting and has the tension necessary for any first class spy story. It is so imaginative that it creates its own fantasy land – Stasiland – a claustrophobic country where the sun rarely shines; it is invariably night time and the streets dimly lit; populated by grey men who traverse grey corridors.

The Stasi operatives are brutal-faced robots with sexual hang-ups. The accelerating rhythmic monotony of the musical score, underpins the horror. We see no bright streets with ordinary families out walking or playing - this is Big-Brother 1984 for real.

It purports however to be a portrait of the GDR – a country I lived in for a number of years– but fail to recognise here. The detail of the film is meticulous and authentic, even down to the light switches and door handles, but authentic detail doesn’t always add up to an authentic whole; in fact, as here, it can mask the hollowness of the whole.

It tells the story of an award-winning writer who is nevertheless harassed by the State Security apparatus until his wife commits suicide. He is saved from the clutches of the Stasi by a decent operative who keeps his mouth shut at the crucial moment. The director himself admits it is not based on a single story but, as he says:

" the end, I reached a point where I knew that I would be able to create a fictional story that was somehow truer than a true story".

 The 'good' Stasiman in the film is actually a former GDR actor who in real life, only last year, accused his wife, the actress, Jenny Grollman, of spying on him for the Stasi. Grollmann vehemently denied these claims, winning an injunction against publishers Suhrkamp, which published an interview with the Stasi actor, Muhe, along with the film's screenplay, halting publication of both.

The role played by the GDR's internal State Security apparatus was often iniquitous. It did spy on its own citizens, imprisoned people wrongly and was paranoid about opposition and rebellion, but it cannot, in any way, be compared with the Nazi Gestapo, nor did it determine the everyday lives of the GDR’s citizens as this film would have us believe.

Much of the story is hooked on the role of a government minister who blackmails a leading actress to sleep with him. This in itself is highly fictional, and is totally unbelievable that he stalks her, as shown in the film, in his ministerial Volvo. This would have had the populace at their windows in no time and a scandal would have ensued. Even in the GDR and with the Stasi, there was a rule of law and citizens had rights. No minister would have risked his career with such adventurism and the Stasi was concerned in weeding out dissidents, not protecting ministerial dalliance.

The same goes for the prostitute visiting the Stasi man. There were very few prostitutes in the GDR, as women had equality in society, a right to a home, a job and generous state support for mothers. Those that plied the trade, frequented the hotels and fairs with western tourists and businessmen because they were only interested in western money to buy luxury goods unavailable for East German Marks. Sexuality was very permissive and even a Stasi man could have easily picked up a woman in a bar with no problem; he would have no need of a prostitute. What West Germans also fail to understand about the GDR is that, misguided or not, many citizens and party members truly believed in socialism and in a socialist morality. Those motivated by greed, sexual lust or cynicism were few.

Time magazine's caption for this still from the film reads: "GOOD OLD DAYS? The Lives of Others challenges the benign view of the G.D.R. promoted by Ostalgie parties and east German products."

The film makes great play about a GDR blacklist of artists, but the reason all films about the GDR are made by Germans from the west, is that former GDR film makers are blacklisted today. Even those who were in the past praised in the West for their honesty, critical attitude and film-making skills, are no longer making films.    If this were only one of a number of films portraying a range of GDR realities and perspectives, it would not be so significant. However, it purports to show a holistic reality. I am not surprised that this film has been crowned with awards, including an Oscar. It feeds all the clichés about communism and the GDR, perpetuating myths that the victorious West would have us believe.

No ex-GDR film-maker has been allowed to make films about a reality they actually lived; they are silenced. West Germany never made any films which revealed the horrendous realities of the Nazi era. Only recently has it produced a film about Hitler, The Downfall (more concerned with Hitler’s psychology and clearly aimed at a box office success, as the West is fascinated by this aspect). It was left to the former GDR to fill the gap, which they did immediately after the war, with Council of the Gods, about the collaboration of big-business with the Nazis, Naked Among Wolves, about Buchenwald concentration camp, Jacob the Liar about Jewish persecution, and a whole number of others. It was the GDR that faced its past honestly; the West has never done so.

Von Donnersmarck says he got the idea for his film from a quotation of Lenin’s to the writer Maxim Gorki, about not wanting to listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata anymore because it made him want to "tell people sweet, stupid things and stroke their heads", in times when it was necessary, "to smash in those heads, smash them in without mercy". This is however a misquote and a deliberate misunderstanding. In the conversation he had with Gorki about the arts and culture in general, he regrets that he has to subdue his inner feelings sometimes for the good of the revolutionary cause. He has a deep love for Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, and says: 

"I can't often listen to music, it … makes me want to pat the heads of people … But now one must not pat anyone's head … one has to beat their heads, beat mercilessly, although ideally we're against any sort of force against people. Hmm - it's a devilishly difficult task."

That is the complete quote. Here lies the deepest complexity of Lenin's character as he steeled himself to the violence and bloodshed that accompanied his revolution. It was not that he wanted it, still less took any pleasure in it, rather it was, he felt, inevitable. It was said in the aftermath of the bloody World War, the revolution was raging and the wars of intervention by the West had begun; there was little space for relaxation and personal indulgence.

The reason why the film, The Lives of Others has been so hyped and showered with awards is not, in the main, because it is a well-made film, but because it demonises a whole experience – Germany’s experiment with socialism. It is an attempt to rewrite history by the victors and to condemn totally the GDR experience. It is an attempt to knock 'Ostalgia' – the fond reminiscing of the good side of life in the old GDR – on the head once and for all.

John Green is a British journalist who lived in the GDR during the 1960s, '70s and '80s.