The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

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Back in the DDR

Von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others finally gets under the skin of Stasiland.

Published on July 1, 2007

The Lives of Others
Written and Directed by
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Bayerischer Rundfunk, 137 minutes

Since its release in May 2006, The Lives of Others (“Das Leben der Anderen”) has won just about every major German film prize, been named best film at the European Film Awards in Warsaw, and taken the Oscar for best foreign-language film at this year’s Academy Awards. Prizes aren’t everything, of course, and the tastes of audiences and juries don’t always coincide. There’s little chance that this debut film by the young Cologne-born director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck will outgross Blades of Glory or Meet the Robinsons. Nevertheless, in late April as I am writing this in London, a fortnight or so after the film went on release here, The Lives of Others is doing better at the box office than any other film currently showing in the British capital.

Not only have those London cinemas been packed to a degree unusual for a serious German film with subtitles, but they’ve been packed with people utterly absorbed by the subtle, somber drama unfolding on screen. Almost everyone I know who has seen it agrees that they can scarcely remember a cinema so silent, an audience so rapt. This isn’t a film to munch popcorn through.

What makes this success all the more remarkable is the film’s subject. Set in 1984, The Lives of Others evokes in extraordinary, painstaking detail the dark days of a divided Europe as seen from the dreary, dysfunctional country at its heart: East Germany, or the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), to give it its grotesquely inapposite, and much contested, “proper” name.

Beautifully shot in an authentically dismal East German palette of grays and browns and greens—a dozen different shades of fear—the film follows an agent of the East German Ministry of State Security, the hated Stasi, as he spies on a successful playwright and his actress girlfriend. The glamorous couple are not dissidents but privileged members of the country’s cultural elite. Even by the notoriously elastic legal standards of the DDR, they have committed no crime, but that’s not enough to save them from the menacing attentions of the state. The Stasi man assigned to pursue them (in a quite riveting performance from leading East German actor Ulrich Mühe) is a top operative, dedicated, loyal, remorseless, so good at his job that he gives classes in interrogation at the Stasi training school. He bugs the couple’s apartment and installs himself in the attic to monitor their every word, their every move. His task is to destroy their world. Yet as he shadows and invades his fellow citizens’ lives, he comes gradually, astonishingly, to question the very basis of his own.

Ulrich Mühe as Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler [credit: courtesy Sony Pictures Classics]


It’s a sign of the emotional force of the human drama with which von Donnersmarck and his outstanding cast invest the film that they manage to make such a subject appeal so powerfully to non-German audiences, many of whom may have known nothing much of East Germany beyond the fact that it had those funny little cars—and built a wall to stop its own citizens from running away. In Germany, however, the film has relaunched the tense, sometimes heated debate about the costs and benefits of unification, and the legacy, if any, of the forty-year existence of the DDR.

How urgent that debate should be is itself in some dispute. A generation of young German adults has grown up now since the fall of the Wall in November 1989. Whether in the former East or the former West, it seems that many of them have grown up largely unaware of, and therefore largely uninterested in, their country’s recent divided past.

Does this matter? One who thinks it most certainly does is Hubertus Knabe, an historian who worked with the Gauck Commission, the body set up after unification to process and administer the vast secret archives of the Stasi, and who now runs the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial Center, housed in the former Stasi central prison. Knabe rejects any thought that it might be better, in the jargon, “to move on.” He is passionate and energetic in his belief that there has been a national failure to come to terms with the full ugliness of what went on in the DDR. In his new book, Die Täter sind unter uns (“The Guilty Are Among Us”), published in March by Propyläen, Knabe seeks to show just how many senior operatives of the Communist regime have gone unpunished for their crimes and have managed even to thrive in the new unified Germany. He wants these people brought to justice as Nazi war criminals were.

Knabe begins his book, however, by documenting a prior problem; namely, the degree of sheer ignorance among his compatriots of the world in which The Lives of Others is set. “In Freiburg, Wuppertal or Oldenburg”, he writes, 17 years after unification, “the DDR for most people is as far off as the Roman Empire.” He quotes a survey that found only 22 percent of school pupils could correctly identify Erich Honecker as the last head of East Germany’s ruling Communist party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED): Some, faced with a multiple choice of answers, thought he might perhaps have been the second Chancellor of the Federal Republic and creator of its economic miracle; other young people, questioned on the streets of Berlin, picked him out as the man “who, under National Socialism, saved many Jews from certain death.”

Asked about the DDR, older pupils were not much more likely to get things right than their younger counterparts. Knabe is critical of his country’s education system. Too many schools teach little or nothing about East Germany. Universities are not much better, with the number of courses on the history and significance of the DDR actually having decreased steadily since unification, to the point where more than 60 percent of German universities were found in 2000 to be offering no courses on the subject at all.

Even when the DDR does show up in the curriculum, Knabe thinks that the wrong aspects of its history are taught. Emphasis tends to fall on the exceptional transitional periods around 1945 and 1989. East German culture, above all literature, receives by far the lion’s share of academic attention. No one seems to want to study the workings of the Stasi, or the structures of surveillance, deception and repression so graphically portrayed in von Donnersmarck’s film, which underpinned the hegemony of the ruling SED and which tainted every aspect of daily life for East Germany’s citizens through four decades. No one wants to remember how it really was.



But how was it, really? I remember it, for instance, like this. One afternoon in 1982, two friends and I walked into a restaurant on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse in East Berlin. The place was aimed, I assume, at higher party functionaries from the showcase government offices nearby and at affluent Western visitors like us. It was on the ground floor of a public building of some sort, a big, flashy exercise in that postwar architectural idiom that might be described as Socialist Triumphal or People’s Neo-Baroque: grim, precast concrete on the outside; inside a riot of chandeliers and gilt. The rebuilt streets around Alexanderplatz were lined with such monuments to progress. This one (or so it seems to me now) was quite empty of customers.

The youngish waiter wore leather trousers. He had problem skin and spiky blond hair. The look, just a year or two out of date at the time, may have been an homage to one of the capitalist rock stars that the Communist regime had given up trying to stop its citizens watching on West German TV: Sting, perhaps, with pimples.

It was quite late and we were afraid they might already have stopped serving lunch. The rows of unoccupied tables, all neatly laid, gave no clues either way. We asked rather hesitantly if we could get some food. “Of course”, Comrade Sting replied, and he launched into a bravura recitation of what seemed like the entire menu, dish after dish, from memory, at breakneck speed. “Wow”, we said, reeling slightly at this disconcerting feat of recall. “That’s pretty impressive.” It all seemed friendly enough. We went to sit down.

A few minutes later he came across to our table, no longer so friendly. He’d been thinking things over. “You said that was ‘impressive.’ What did you mean by that? Did you expect we’d have nothing to eat? Or just potatoes? Where do you think this is?” He was shouting now. “Poland?”

Almost anyone who used to visit East Germany will have a tale like that to tell. Rudeness, paranoia, bad haircuts, the defiant, resentful flourish of national pride: menace and absurdity combined. Most of the defining traits of the DDR are there in that one little episode. Is it a funny story? For 25 years now I suppose I’ve told it as if it were, and the people I’ve told it to have mostly managed, if only out of politeness, to raise a smile. But I’m not so sure. I don’t think we laughed until we were back in West Berlin.

Mine was a visitor’s view. The British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash, who lived in East Germany for a time, tells a similar story from, as it were, the other side of the table. In his book The File (1997), he recounts how a highly valued Stasi informer in Weimar once devoted a detailed three-page letter of complaint to her controllers about the quality of the service in the restaurant of the town’s Hotel Elephant. She took particular exception to the “dictatorial tone” of Herr Göbbel, the maître d’.

Garton Ash offers his anecdote, too, almost by way of light relief, an illustration of just how petty and ridiculous the system could become. Elsewhere, he quotes from the file the Stasi kept on him, in which an informer codenamed “Schuldt” reports on yet another meal: “While I was at pains to order Czech specialities (e.g. dumplings) to eat”, Schuldt writes, “my companion [Garton Ash] partook of a dish of chicken liver. He drank two or three bottles of pils.” We are what we eat, I know. But this is grotesque. Garton Ash rightly wonders how many of the 120-odd miles of surviving Stasi files are given over to stuff like that.

Yet take those three random dining room snapshots together, and what do you have? A vision of a land where even going out for lunch was a skirmish in the Cold War? Well, no, perhaps not quite. But a glimpse, for sure, into the poisoned heart of a country where the most inconsequential encounter between two fellow human beings came charged with a corrosive burden of mistrust. Is it any wonder that no one wants to remember the place?


Hubertus Knabe documents in chilling detail throughout Die Täter sind unter uns the ways in which the SED regime kept order in the DDR. Criticism could result in anything from loss of privileges of one kind or another to loss of a job or a university place to imprisonment or expulsion and loss of citizenship. If brute force didn’t meet a particular case, then the legal system, the education system, even medicine and psychiatry, would be bent to the ruling party’s ends. Yet East Germany never altogether fitted the totalitarian model of a people oppressed by an all-powerful, one-party state. It was more muddled than that, more muddled, even, than such things usually are. To an unsettling degree, the people of the DDR may be said to have oppressed themselves, and that truth is what gives The Lives of Others its power.

Stasi agents in the 1980s numbered in excess of 200,000. Fewer than half of these, however, were regular full-time employees of the kind depicted with such moral and psychological precision by Ulrich Mühe in von Donnersmarck’s film. The rest, well more than 100,000 of them, were so-called inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (IMs), unofficial collaborators. These were neighbors who spied on neighbors, colleagues who spied on colleagues, classmates who spied on classmates, brothers who spied on brothers, husbands who spied on wives. Mühe says his own first wife spied on him throughout their marriage in the DDR.

Some were bribed or blackmailed into spying. Most, however, did it for reasons that only they will ever know. Some will have hoped to further a career, others to settle a score. Some may just have wanted to feel important or involved. Some, more than Knabe might be willing to credit, actually believed that they were acting for the best. The British historian Mary Fulbrook has described the DDR, with some justice, as a “participatory dictatorship.”

When the surviving Stasi archives were opened by the Gauck Commission, the full extent of the participation became horribly clear. There were files on some four million citizens, roughly a quarter of the population. No one knows how many more had been destroyed. The sheer futility of collecting so much that had been deemed worth recording—all those dumplings and rude waiters and bottles of pils—was precisely what made it so devastating. Here, in mile upon mile of documents, were myriad petty betrayals and deceits, reaching into the most inconsequential, most intimate corners of millions of lives. As a society, the DDR destroyed itself utterly from within long before the country itself fell apart.

It was this bleak knowledge, as much as the historical ignorance Knabe cites, that started the wave of Ostalgie, nostalgia for the East, that has taken hold in Germany since the Wall came down. The inhabitants of the eastern part of Germany may have once dreamed, like Sting the waiter, of the glittering capitalist splendors they saw paraded each night on the Western TV shows that most everyone picked up. Now, as the financial and social effects of unification kicked in, with unemployment rising and the full extent of the economic and industrial ruin of the former DDR at last becoming clear, many newly liberated Easterners preferred to revel in, and even to construct, an East German identity they had never quite known they had.

A flood of books, some jocular, some scholarly, analyzed the differences in culture, language, behavior and attitudes between the Ossis, those brought up in the former East, and the Wessis, their more prosperous new countrymen in the Federal Republic. Old East German television shows, like the rather marvelous (if improbably Stasi-free) weekly cop series Polizeiruf 110, won a post-reunification cult following. New shows celebrated East German pop music, and even East German cuisine. Drab, unstable utility furniture was dusted down. Trabants, those stinking, noisy, inefficient cars, were restored, adapted, and sped down Western roads. Even the little socialist green man on the pedestrian crossing signs, striding progressively ahead in his outsized trilby hat, became an icon of sorts.

[credit: Getty Images]

Cinema was in the forefront of it all. Hit films such as Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin (2003) and the teen comedy Sonnenallee (1999), by Leander Haussmann and the novelist Thomas Brussig, explored what in East Germany had passed for “normal life.” In Goodbye Lenin, a young man tries to recreate the vanished country so as to protect his devoutly socialist mother when she awakes from a coma after the fall of the Wall. It is a moving and thoughtful as well as a funny film, and works well as a shrewd examination of what might and might not have been worth preserving of the DDR. Sonnenallee, sentimental but not stupid, shows how the system could be played, how everyday lives could be lived, and how young love is probably much the same wherever it is found—even if in the DDR you could, with a bit of bad luck, end up being shot by a policeman just for running down the street in a fit of exuberance.

Such films, like most manifestations of Ostalgie, may be accused of prettifying a hideous regime and trivializing its crimes. They celebrate the things that allowed and still allow East Germans to believe they were living ordinary lives. In doing so, however, they raise, not always inadvertently, some of the most interesting, most troubling questions about the DDR. We’re back with those dumplings and rude waiters, yet again. The private realm, the trivial business of everyday life, was where the country’s citizens sought refuge from the state. Yet it was precisely there that East Germany’s participatory dictatorship was at its ugliest. The narrator at the end of Sonnenallee says he would describe his youth in that blighted corner of East Berlin as the happiest time of his life. But what did it mean, and what did it take, to be happy in that unlovely, iniquitous land?

Seen in these terms, The Lives of Others perhaps offers not a radical break with the seemingly frivolous Ostalgie of those earlier films, but rather a kind of necessary counterpoint. Here, harrowingly, are the torture and the torment; there are the jolly East German pop songs that masked the screams. The same anxieties run throughout.

The Lives of Others has itself been accused of distorting or betraying the facts, of sacrificing truth to the cause of cinematic beauty and dramatic power. Hubertus Knabe is one of those who has criticized it. He complains that in reality no Stasi agent ever did what Mühe’s character is shown to do. Such men were not moved by the warm normality of their victims’ lives to examine the arid brutality of their own. Music and poetry could not touch their hearts as we see them touch an agent’s heart here.

The Australian writer Anna Funder, author of Stasiland (2003), a moving but rather overwrought collection of life stories from the DDR, has gone further in her attack. “I think it’s a terrific movie”, she told the Independent, “but I am deeply uncomfortable about its rotten core. How would we feel about an equally terrific movie made, say, in the early 1960s, which showed the change of heart, redemption and comeuppance of a Gestapo agent? Whose interests does this serve?”

I think that Knabe and Funder have missed the point. The poet Wolf Biermann came convincingly to von Donnersmarck’s defense: “The film was able to convey things to me that I could never have imagined being real. The ghosts are stepping out of the shadows. Sometimes a work of art can have more documentary power than actual documents.” That may be a cliché, but coming as it does from a man who for much of his life was the living symbol of opposition to the DDR, one whose own Stasi file ran to 10,000 pages and contained reports by no fewer than 215 of his associates, acquaintances and friends, it’s a cliché that deserves respect.

To divide East Germany’s participatory dictatorship into a black and white world of perpetrators and victims serves no one’s interests (to borrow Funder’s phrase). The DDR turned its citizens against each other and against themselves. But the DDR was those citizens. Everyone made choices, even the Stasi men. The lives of others were their lives as well. They, too, had the possibility of sacrifice and redemption, however insanely unlikely it may have seemed. To deny that is to deny the enduring power of human dignity and individual responsibility, and the love of freedom that in 1989 so dramatically and surprisingly prevailed in East Berlin. Von Donnersmarck’s film poses tough questions. It asks the inhabitants of the former DDR: What did you do, and not do? And it asks those of us fortunate enough to have lived elsewhere: What would you have done?

Ian Brunskill is obituaries editor of The (London) Times.