Monday, 27 April 2009
Strong But Inflexible
After (rather disgracefully) allowing my copy of The Lives of Others to languish in the giant pile of DVDs I've yet to watch, I at last got around to watching it last night.
It seems almost entirely redundant to describe it as depressing. A 132 minute piece on Stazi surveillance tactics in the GDR was never going to be laugh-a-minute, after all . I had to watch it in three pieces to prevent myself just getting too bummed out (also, Supernatural was on, and a man can only go so long without having to watch some horror which is based on ghosties rather than man's inhumanity to man and the hopelessness of living in a totalitarian state).
As miserable as it is, though, it's also great. The late Ulrich Mühe is particularly awesome. He spends most of the film staring at either walls or dissidents, and the amount of range he can get out of just that is truly brilliant. Martina Gedek and and Ulrich Tukur are great as well, as a miserable actress and a petty-minded Stasi boss, respectively.
I suspect that there's enough going on the film to write a whole series of posts, had I the time. I could talk about the basis of much of the film being the similarity between a intelligence operative and a voyeur, or the way vast suffering and hopelessness is generated by the smallest actions and omissions of actions of sufficiently many people (there's a particularly poignant moment in the film when Dreyman points out that the GDR keeps count of everything, down to how many shoes he buys a year, but that they don't tally suicide statistics, perhaps because somethings are too sad for even a faceless bureaucracy to deal with).
The thing that struck me most, though, and this may be because it's been rattling around my brain this last week anyway, is how the authorities in the GDR could simultaneously believe their country was so strong, and vibrant, and an international inspiration, but also that the smallest incident, down to a harmless joke or insufficiently patriotic comment, could destabilise them (the parallels with the most dedicated believers of American Exceptionalism are left as an exercise for the reader).
I'm not sure I'd go quite so far as to label it doublethink in the strict Orwellian sense, mainly because it seems to be a more general trait of humanity than any deliberate intellectual blindness , but it's an interesting phenomena nonetheless.
 In truth, there is one awesome joke in the film, which goes something like this:
General Secretary Erich Honecker wakes up in the morning. "Good morning, Sun, " he tells the Sun. "Good morning, Erich," the Sun replies. In the middle of the day, whilst Honecker is having lunch, he looks into the sky again. "Good afternoon, Sun," he says. "Good afternoon, Erich," says the Sun in turn.
Then, that evening, after Honecker has come home, he goes to the window and looks out at the sunset.
"Good evening, Sun," Honecker says.
The Sun is silent.
"Good evening, Sun," Honecker repeats. Still nothing.
"Why won't you answer me?" Honecker asks, concerned. "What's wrong?"
"Screw you!" the Sun tells him, "I'm in the West now!"
Well, it made me laugh, anyway.
 I actually first noticed this sort of strangely paradoxical thinking on a much more personal level, after a friend of mine told me she was simultaneously convinced she and her boyfriend would get married and spend their lives together, but also that she didn't want to admit to any dissatisfaction with any aspect of their relationship, in case he split up with her.