Out of the closet?

Lawrence Parker reviews Florian Henckel's The lives of others (Das Leben der Anderen)

This film, directed and screenwritten by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, has been gathering awards, plaudits and audiences since its original release in Germany in March 2006.

Set in 1984 in the German Democratic Republic, it deals with the cultural scene in East Berlin and its interaction with the Stasi (the GDR's secret police) and the ruling bureaucracy. Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe) is tasked with bugging the flat of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress lover Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler comes to realise that this exercise has been constructed to give a central committee member free sexual reign with Sieland by getting Dreyman out of the way on a political pretext. Wiesler ends up defending Dreyman by sending in bland reports, as Dreyman smuggles an article to the west.

Such political drama is of course something the left needs to comment on and dissect. After seeing the film myself I was interested to read the review by Dan Katz in the latest issue of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty's Solidarity (www.workersliberty.org/node/8234). He argues: "In truth this film does not do justice to the horror of what it was like to live in East Germany under Stalinist rule. The everyday paranoia, fearfulness and cynicism [are] certainly depicted. But overall some of the truth and reality is sacrificed for the plot and the story - as far as we know, there never was an agent who 'turned'. Still this is an effective story [that is] well told."

Leaving aside the bland and inexact phraseology ("effective", "well told" - what do these words mean exactly?), this should be the beginning of Katz's exploration. Instead, it is but one paragraph in a jumble of dreary waffle. Four introductory paragraphs deal with plot summary while the final 18 (yes, 18) paragraphs do not mention the film again, instead treating us to a historical recap of the despicable role of the Stasi in the GDR. Katz, who must have dozed through most of the film, is so busy constructing his dull history lesson, he actually misses a set of messages that partially contradict the flat anti-Stalinism he uses the film to convey.

Using a similar (although more enthusiastic) method to Katz, sections of the German media have hailed this film as a truthful depiction of the drudgery of life in the GDR - as opposed to films such as Goodbye Lenin! (2003), which has gained a reputation for showing the GDR in a sentimental light.

This anti-Stalinism is certainly present. The state is shown as something that is not somehow 'outside' the lived experience of GDR citizens, but rather as something that manipulates and invades the minutiae of everyday life. The functionaries of the state, even Wiesler's chief officer, Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), are portrayed as victims of a bureaucratic web.

There are other factors at work in this film that militate against a simplistic reading. Sometimes these messages are explicit. When Dreyman comes across the central committee member who had been having an affair with Sieland he expresses his disgust that such people once held power (this is after the collapse of the GDR). However, Dreyman's protagonist hits home with the line that there is now "nothing to believe in, nothing to fight against" - Dreyman is struggling to write since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Similarly, the relationship between Dreyman and ex-Stasi agent Wiesler, which takes up the ending of the film, is something that endures beyond the GDR. On one level, this relationship is formed against the interests of the bureaucracy, but its endurance in the midst of the rather empty lives that the two are now seemingly living in the unified Germany begins to suggest some kind of closet sentimentalism for the GDR.

Much of the film centres on Dreyman's comfortable-looking flat. Even after the flat has been bugged there is a cosy domesticity to the scenes and even humour when Weisler's assistant shows his pleasure at the thought of listening in to the occupants having sex.

This film has been shot in sombre tones but, far from making the scenes look washed out or dirty, I thought all the shots looked quite beautiful, precisely through being quiet. It also has an attention to detail in terms of objects (cars, clothes, telephones, books) that made everything look positively curated - lovingly and thoughtfully assembled.

So the director has done enough to pose question marks and ambiguities in the viewer's path that, surely, should merit some place in the film's analysis. If I had been asked prior to seeing it if the director thought that life in the GDR was better or worse than in present-day Germany I would have guessed worse. After going to see it for myself I would still guess worse, but I am not nearly so sure.

Even a director who was an extreme anti-Stalinist would rub up against a set of filmic conventions (making it look good, telling a coherent story, making it 'believable') that can distort and contradict the most ardent of political messages. This is the point that Katz stumbles over in his review when he talks of "reality" being "sacrificed for the plot and the story". Katz, like his bourgeois counterparts, is precluded from fleshing this out by an inattentive and reductive methodology.