In popular culture, Germany is known for its literary and philosophical tradition, in which its legacy is indisputable, but on the silver screen, its productions tend not to receive the same level of recognition. In this context, we suggest a title whose relevance is undeniable.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, bringing with it the political and ideological division that split 20th Century Germany in two blocs. In East Germany, the STASI, a secret police agency, followed its citizens footsteps closely, with detailed records of their activities (similarly to the PIDE in the Estado Novo period in Portugal, the SAVAK in Iran before 1979, and the KGB in the Soviet Union). In “The Lives of Others” (Das Leben der Anderen), the main character is introduced to us as an implacable defender of this state apparatus and its methods, but during his assignment finds himself confronted with corruption within the organization and develops a sense of empathy with his mark – a playwright, a profession that came progressively under fire but the state of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) due to its limitation of freedom of expression.
Realizing the immorality of the circumstances, agent Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) undertakes a series of actions and omissions that aim to protect the person which he was supposed to spy on and expose as an enemy of the state. The latter, the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), lives in perfect ignorance over the fact that he is permanently wiretapped. The beauty of the film is also in how it resolves the story, and how it mirrors a reality which isn’t so distant for us. The scars of the division of Germany are still noted today on economic, political and social levels, and the main actor, who passed away in 2007, became aware that his real-life partner, with whom he participated in protests and demonstrations before the wall came down, was sharing information with the STASI. When questioned about how he prepared for his role in the film, Ulrich Mühe replied simply, “I remembered”.
“The Lives of Others is a striking film, not only because of what it teaches us of a not-so-distant history, of the methods and practices of an organization with which we would not identify modern Germany, but also because of the way in which it illustrates the human capacity for morally deplorable acts, as well as acts of the biggest altruism and sacrifice. In its essence, it takes us to a historical context to which it transports us with immersion and attention to detail, and uses it to explore in depth the concept of moral character, implicitly its central theme. It’s this exploration that makes this title extraordinary.
In a context where communication technology transformed the world, the notions of privacy that “The Lives of Others” raises are more and more provocative. An agency similar to the STASI would have access to infinitely superior resources in the present, especially in urban settings where video surveillance threatens to become omnipresent and technology is an integral part of individuals’ lives. But it’s important not to forget that, in a context where society is progressively more interconnected, perhaps to the point of discomfort and without having that connection translate into emotional bonds, and in a moment in time where our lives are perfectly exposed, we are also naturally also exposed to the scrutiny of “others”. It would perhaps be too late to go back in the status quo, but learning to live in this new way of life is the challenge of our times – to be aware that the barrier between public and private is diluting, or transforming itself, and that its necessary to relearn that individuals are not monolithic, that personalities have many facets, and we are all “a bit of many things”. In short, that despite all transformations we remain human, and under different circumstances we are morally capable of the best and the worst.