This is a hearty recommendation for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film “Das Leben der Anderen” (The Lives of Others), which is now showing in London. It’s the best film I have seen in a long time.
Made in Germany last year, it won the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film –but don’t let that put you off.
This film is stylishly produced with plenty of good, old fashioned human interest. Where it really impresses, though, is as a portrait of culture and creativity in the former Eastern bloc, where the state (and in this case especially the East German secret police the Stasi) took an active interest in both the work and the private lives of artists, writers and directors, in addition to overt political dissidents. The result is chilling.
Simply as an historical period piece, “Das Leben der Anderen” works remarkably well. It’s set in East Berlin in the 1980s, and is deeply evocative of the world before glasnost.
But it seems to me that much of the power of this film is not simply historical. The issues that it raises reverberate very uncomfortably today. This is not only for those who still live and work within totalitarian –or at least authoritarian- regimes elsewhere in the world. It also serves to remind those of us who live in considerably more liberal societies that our liberties are not historically inalienable. It also urges us to reflect on how much we should be prepared to accept censorship, surveillance and state control as the price we pay for security.
Crucially, we see in this film that it’s not a question of pantomime villains, of cardboard representations of good and bad. It’s often as much about what ordinary people will do to further their careers or even –probably more painfully- just to get by.
Put another way, if I had a viewing list as well as a reading list for students in CCI, this film would be on it. As you walk out of the cinema and into the street, it makes you look over your shoulder –at history.
Dr Richard Howells