Monday, September 29, 2008

The Lives of Others: Comparisons Are Compelling

As many may know, Latter-day Saints are generally not ones who go out to see R rated movies. I have a general policy that I will avoid them about 95% of the time. Now, I will do my best to not be a hypocrite here and admit that, yes, I have seem my share of plenty of R rated movies in my life, and many of them I’d just kinda’ shrugged off and said “eh, whatever”, meaning they didn’t really leave much of an impact or impression on me (making it typically easy to ignore most of the R rated fare out there). There are, however, a handful of “R” ratings out there that I have seen and will genuinely say I’m glad that I have seen them and I appreciate what they tried to project and the manner in which they did. “Schindler’s List” is an example of a movie that I have no problem telling people I’ve seen and would even recommend to others to see. I am going to add another film to that list, “The Lives of Others”.

As I’ve seen people refer to the United States as a country slowly drifting towards jingoistic socialism, as the current political rhetoric du jour likes to spout, I found it both chilling and fascinating to see what life was like in a true totalitarian socialist/communist state, in this case East Germany, and specifically East Berlin. The notion of being watched and monitored, every word, every action and every utterance having the potential to be used against you, every act under constant surveillance for daring to wish to speak one’s mind in protest, to have your life and livelihood held captive by a government that would do anything to keep people in line, including making those closest to you (friends, family, and loved ones) become informants for the state. That is the core of this movie, and I can honestly say it was a heart-rending, painful and ultimately sad film to watch, yet with all that, I couldn’t take my eyes away from it.

The general story is that of a Stasi Captain, long trained in the arts of interrogation, surveillance and fact gathering. The story takes place in the pre-Gorbachev era Soviet Bloc (1984). The Captain gets an assignment to spy on a noteworthy playwright and his girlfriend, and to observe their every move and action in the hope to catch the playwright involved in something incriminating. The man is under surveillance because a Party big-wig has an interest in the playwright’s girlfriend, and wants to eliminate the playwright as a suitor. The story follows the Captain as he sets up surveillance of the couple, and as the movie progresses, we see a change overcome the Captain, where at first he cooly observes, the begins editing his reports, and then actively assists in helping this man do something that exposes embarrassing facts about the East German regime and the GDR. I’ll leave it at that for those interested in seeing this film.

There are some areas where I found myself thinking 'hmm, that's odd". Knowing what little I do about organizations like the KGB and the Stasi, those organizations worked as groups, with those who were doing the snooping being snooped on themselves to ensure compliance, so some of the scenes where information is modified and expunged didn’t quite ring true with what would have likely really happened back then. That the system was corrupt and could be manipulated is well known, but not as easily as was portrayed (but then, this is a movie, and going at it the way I’m describing would have made for a much longer film). In addition, it seemed that the transition of the Captains sentiments and allegiance was, while not like a light switch, seemed a little fast and aggressive compared to what would be seen in real life. Likewise, so many situations where suspicion was raised and then left to just set would likely have been addressed much faster in the real GDR (the paranoia of the GDR was legendary, and barring active bribery or manipulation, would have been really tricky for such a high ranking individual to game the system that much). Again, this is a movie, so a little suspension of disbelief is required, but fortunately, not much is needed, and the central point is made, that even in the midst of totalitarian regimes and oppressive systems, its our own personal actions and thoughts that ultimately determine our freedom and our character. It’s also a strong cautionary tale for those who would want to trade elemental freedoms for security and a guarantee of protection by having the government do everything and take care of everything. Give the government too much control of people’s day to day lives and the East German system is a classic example of what could result.

For those looking for a warm, fuzzy and "feel good" movie, this definitely isn’t it. If, however, you ever wanted to see a film that made you extremely happy to be an American, even with its numerous faults and issues, this is a must see.

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