Sunday, September 16, 2007

"The Lives of Others" Not a Road to Damascus Moment

I commend to you the excellent new film, "The Lives of Others," by Florian Henckel von Donnsermarck. The central drama is the moral struggle within an East German secret policeman as he spies on a prominent playwright and his actress girlfriend. The policeman is a true believer in the East German state -- and the playwright is a hopeful socialist, "our only non-subversive writer who is read in the West," as another secret policeman describes him. The Stasi (State Security) man comes to see that his surveillance is just a tool of corruption and petty politics. The playwright, too, is driven to an act of covert rebellion against the police state. Their lives become deeply entangled. I'll not say more about the conclusion.

There is a lovely moment early on when a little boy asks the secret policeman if he is really a Stasi agent.
"Do you know what the Stasi is?"
"Yes. My dad says they are the bad men who put people in prison."
The audience knows this is a dangerous moment for the little boy's family.
"What is the name of ..." the policeman begins. And then he pauses. The actor - East German theater star Ulrich Mühe, who had his own large Stasi file in real life - shows the moral struggle going on inside the Stasi man using only his face.
"What is the name of your ... ball."
"You're silly. Balls don't have names."
The man lets it go.

In an interview included with the DVD, von Donnersmarck says that he wanted to show the policeman's moral struggle as slowly evolving, "not a Damascus moment." He remains the same tidy, quiet, almost compulsive man that he always was, even while his morals are changing. Von Donnersmarck, who spent some of the time writing the screenplay at the Cistercian abbey run by his uncle, said he didn't want his man to go from a gray bureaucrat to a hedonistic bohemian, like the artists he was watching. People don't change from Saul to Paul, the director said, unless there is divine intervention. "The Lives of Others" is about the moral changes we can come to make and choose for ourselves.

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