Das Leben der Anderen, or The Lives of Others, has already received some flak, but for reasons decidedly tangential to its politics. In an already pinhole-sized niche for foreign films in America, some felt that the solemn recognition which Leben has received is excessive for a thoroughly middlebrow and rather flaccid melodrama. Some were a little astonished that it beat out Pan's Labyrinth (which is a worse film, but also politically weak-hearted) for the Foreign Language Oscar last year. And somehow Leben has gotten itself lodged near the top 50 films as ranked by IMDb. 29,000+ people there say they've seen it—or 29 times the number that say they've seen Jafar Panahi's magnificent Offside or about 8 times the number that say they've seen the Dardenne's L'Enfant.
But my quibble with the film's exposure is not about it edging out aesthetically better films; it's about the strange way that Leben and Goodbye, Lenin, another recent film about Communist East German, present the past. In an era where the politics of memory has become, for better or worse, one of the most contested battlegrounds of ideology, no two films have mounted hollower attacks or leveled featherier blows at the ostensible villains of history.
At one point in Leben, two Communist Party officers—Wiesler, our protagonist, and Grubitz, a half-villain—are eating in the Ministry cafeteria just down the table from a group of junior Stasi (State Security—the secret police) recruits. Another recruit comes bouncing blithely up, fliply tossing out the opening line to a joke about Erich Honecker, the East German head of state from 1971-1989. His mates point out the officers down the table, and the young man freezes. Grubitz laughingly urges the recruit to finish the joke. He does, and then, once Grubitz has finished laughing, is told that his career is over and some other ominous things will likely befall him. Then Grubitz laughs again, says he was joking, and tells a joke about Honecker himself. I cannot be sure, but I believe we see the young recruit toward the end of the film, steam-opening envelopes in a dingy room, a position which we have been told is a punishment for insubordinate or insufficiently zealous Stasi officers.
This is Stasi at its absolute most menacing, if you believe Leben's director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Another character completely and methodically sabotages a high-priority surveillance mission, and he too, ends up steam-opening envelopes. Hauser, a journalist, publicly insults Bruno Hempf, an influential minister, and finds himself being followed rather amiably by a man he jocularly calls 'Rolf.' Another man, a gifted director, is blacklisted because of his political views. He commits suicide, apparently in melancholic frustration. The Stasi ransack the playwright Dreyman's apartment looking for a contraband typewriter, but do so almost gingerly, delicately paging through Dreyman's book to shake out incriminating letters. They apologize for the mess when they leave. This is as bad as it gets in the DDR, apparently. Oh, and they keep people awake for too long. For an excellent article regarding this complete evisceration of anything approaching actual political critique, read this by Zizek.
However, my point is considerably different from his—he argues that the political evasions of the film are really about the protagonist's latent homosexuality (oh, Zizek). And it is also more than just a demand for historical accuracy.
My argument is not that Donnersmarck is insufficiently realistic in his portrayal of the East German Secret Police—that is clearly not his goal. His goal is to create a fairy tale about human nature, one that uses the backdrop of East Germany to add a little intensity and piquancy to a grossly schematic narrative of personal redemption demonstrating yet again the inherent goodness of humankind. A party-goer tells Georg Dreyman, the aforementioned playwright, that he tries to view humanity as no different from the characters he writes—they can always change, and they always do, and always for the good. If you don't think this is Donnersmarck at your elbow telegraphing the whole stinking plot, well then you haven't seen very many movies.
Dreyman's view of human nature—completely mutable, but only insofar as they change to become more like the good people they are inside—is upheld by the film. The only characters who remain unredeemed are petty bureaucrats, whose ambition supersedes their natural sense of compassion. This is indeed a fairy tale of a sort—and in regards to more than its specific forms of historical unreality.
Let me pause to say that, while I have tried to avoid giving direct spoilers, they become necessary now to let me finish my argument.
The film's view of human nature, coupled with the fate of the protagonist—the principal Stasi spy, Wiesler, who ends up steam-opening letters after he purposely sabotages the surveillance of Dreyman, then becomes a regular, drearily quotidian postman in the unified Germany—is a specific type of fairy tale.
You have likely heard of socialist realism, with its often silly deformations of reality in the service of communism and its leaders. Leben is a grandiloquent work of capitalist realism, preaching the gospel of redemption through integrity and hard work. Wiesler's fate—a life of drudgery, a meaninglessly selfless, dead-end job—is the iconic capitalist trope for penance and redemption. In the mythology of capitalist realism, the relinquishment of ambition is the greatest sacrifice; Wiesler does more than give up his life to protect Dreyman—he gives up his career! And he is rewarded, because he is a good worker, pure at heart.
But here is where socialist realism and capitalist realism diverge, for they both glorify the pure-hearted worker. Socialist realism glorifies the worker who is purely devoted to the party; capitalist realism glorifies the worker who is purely and exclusively devoted to his job. Wiesler begins to think insubordinate thoughts when he learns that his assignment—to surveil Dreyman—is not about "protecting" the party or the state; it is a pretense for Minister Hempf's whims and lusts. Hempf is in love with Christa-Maria, Dreyman's girlfriend, and he wants his rival eliminated.
Wiesler rebels at this corruption, but his devotion to his work goes one step further: it is obvious that he becomes besotted with Dreyman and Christa-Maria, but Zizek's reading—latent homosexuality—or the one the film seems to proffer—overt heterosexual longing for Christa-Maria—are equally off-target. Wiesler is in love with his job, with his assignment, and he wants it to continue. That is why his sabotage of that job is poignant—because he knows that he is sacrificing any future assignments like this one; he is renouncing any future loves in favor of the perfect memory of this one. When he is finally able to hold once more his job in his hands—in the form of a novel written by Dreyman about the time of his surveillance—what does he say? "Es ist für mich"—this is for me. His love has returned. The Lives of Others is The Notebook, for capitalists.
Why is this problematic? Apart from an enormously valid critique of capitalism that could result from analyzing the ethics of sacrifice when skewed to these odd dimensions, it would be worthwhile to note that what Donnersmarck's film really accomplishes in the spirit of historical revisionism is this: in addition to the subtle insinuations of nostalgia (which is more powerful when it is latent, as it is here, rather than overt, as in Goodbye, Lenin), Donnersmarck's film transforms the former East Germany into a more or less shady capitalist state—one that occasionally harasses its dissidents and has drab interior design. There is no sense of communism other than its name; one could dub in "Labour" for every mention of "socialist" or "communist" party, and one would hardly notice a difference.
My point might easily be taken to be that communism should be criticized more, that its flaws need more coverage in popular media products, that we should never forget the atrocities of the communist party worldwide.
But that's not what I mean at all. The elision of actual communism from the collective memory of the West and its replacement with a drabbed-down form of capitalism (with sprinkles of repression) is destructive for the left and for any hopes of imagining an alternative to the capitalist system. The belief that capitalism triumphed over communism because it is the only viable method of distributing economic and civil rights is almost unquestioned, and it is enforced when the communism of memory is basically a less effective but more repressive form of capitalist democracy. Donnersmarck's film may be politically problematic because of its soft treatment of East Germany's past and the scale of its citizens' collusion with the horrors of that past, but its wider political danger is that it could be taken to depict something other than a grayer form of capitalist realism.