Ostalgie: Do you miss the Stasi, too?

by Edward Wilkinson Latham

Globe and Mail Review Section

Nominated for a foreign-language Oscar, The Lives of Others reminds young Germans that life behind the Berlin Wall wasn't retro cool

For the past few years, German moviegoers have been overfeeding on ostalgie, a cultish nostalgia for life behind the Iron Curtain in the former German Democratic Republic. It has swept across Germany, spawning a flood of sentimental films and books. While there are many who find the popularity of ostalgie distasteful, this did not stop the GDR parties and the booming sales of retro GDR products. Things even went so far as a GDR theme park (dubbed Stasi-Land), complete with drab interiors, a less-than-inspiring canteen and moody actors in leather coats pretending to be secret policemen. Then there was Katarina Witt's GDR TV show. She invites former East German celebrities onto her couch, aged pop stars, soccer aces and bearded female weightlifters, who recount the good old days under a brutal Communist dictatorship.

This warped sentimentality of life in the East has fuelled a "conspiracy to forget" that was in genuine danger of rewriting the memory of Germany's history in the later half of the 20th century. That was until a very different film came along: Das Leben der Anderen or The Lives of Others, by first-time director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. It addresses a more chilling realistic memory of life in East Germany, where citizens lived in fear of the Ministerium fur Staatsicherheit, the secret police otherwise known as the Stasi. The film opens in Toronto on Friday.

Set in 1984, five years before glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the thriller focuses on a successful playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), and his long-time companion, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a popular theatre actress, both intellectually and ideologically acceptable in the eyes of the authorities.

But the couple's lives are shattered when the Minister of Culture becomes infatuated with Sieland and approves of a full-scale surveillance operation in an attempt to discredit Dreyman. Stasi agent and expert interrogator Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe) is given the task of eavesdropping on the couple and plotting Dreyman's downfall. Their apartment is bugged and as the Stasi agent listens, he becomes immersed in their love for life, literature and free thinking, envying the richness and depth of their lives in comparison with his own.

When Dreyman discovers that Sieland has been pressured into a sexual relationship with the Culture Minister and that a friend, theatre director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), has been driven to suicide after seven years of unofficial "blacklisting" by the government, he is unable to remain silent about the GDR and alerts the outside world by placing an article in the West German publication Der Spiegel, exposing the GDR's policy of covering up the high suicide rates under the regime.

"I first had the idea for this film back in 1997, before ostalgie reached its peak in popularity," Henckel von Donnersmarck, dubbed the new wunderkind of German cinema, says as we sit in a Toronto hotel. "The more popular I saw ostalgie becoming, the more I felt it imperative to get my film made. I could ask a teenager on the street in Germany what the former GDR stood for or what it was it like to live there and they would describe it as 'cool' or a 'slightly quaint place,' unaware of the brutal control or even that it was one of few Communist systems that openly called itself a dictatorship of the proletariat."

At 33, Henckel von Donnersmarck, having studied Russian in St. Petersburg before completing an MA in philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford, may well have primed for a job in government. As our conversation flows from pre-glasnost European politics to post-unification popular culture, he peppers his comments with film references and how he wrote the script during a six-week stay at a Cistercian monastery.

There is no doubting that his film has had an impressive effect. The Lives of Others has played to packed cinemas across Germany and has won countless awards and accolades, including a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards.

"The film has been embraced better than I could have hoped for," Henckel von Donnersmarck says, "especially amongst respected intellectuals from the former GDR, who publicly announced that this film has opened a new chapter."

So eager was the Berlin Education Ministry to dispel ostalgie among schoolchildren, who were mere infants when the Berlin Wall came down, it has paid for countless classes to see this film so that they might gain some perspective on East Germany's history.

"I see it like the film Doctor Zhivago helped audiences put the Russian Civil War into perspective or even what The Deer Hunter did for the understanding of the Vietnam War and the psychological impact on the U.S.," says Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose parents come from East Germany. "The Lives of Others is not just about national therapy but personal therapy too, because everyone knows what it feels like to be afraid, or for someone or something to have absolute power over you."

The film was shot in many of the old buildings used by the Stasi, such as its former headquarters and the archives. "These locations often told me more than the books and documentaries I pored over through the years," Henckel von Donnersmarck says. The only location he was refused access to shoot in was the Hohenschoenhausen, the notorious Stasi prison that today serves as a museum.

"The chief curator asked me how could I make a film about the Stasi without showing physical torture or a drop of blood, and my reply was that the Stasi will always look like a nice version of the Gestapo, but by concentrating on the prolonged mental and psychological torture, we could portray them as the worst of their kind," he says.

The director conducted numerous interviews with witnesses, including prostitutes who worked for the secret police, former prisoners, artists and even former Stasi officers. Before the film's major release, Henckel von Donnersmarck and a few of the actors took the film on a tour through 20 towns in the East to gauge reaction. "We had people coming up to us in tears, saying this is what we lived through, while others were belligerent, trying to justify themselves and the things that they did, as if seeking absolution like I was a priest. It was very powerful."

After the German premiere of The Lives of Others, one of the minor actors was identified as a former Stasi collaborator, and, rather than hiding, decided to face his neighbours, going from door to door to confess what he had done in the past.

"His wife was spat on when she went to the shops, but he told me that despite some neighbours now not talking to him at all, he feels liberated within himself," Henckel von Donnersmarck says.

The German media are also buzzing about Ulrich Muehe, who plays the Stasi spy. He says he discovered that his ex-wife had worked for the organization as a registered informer. During the eighties, Muehe and his then wife were East Germany's dream couple and their story has a lot of similarities to the film's plot. But not everyone is happy with the release and popularity of The Lives of Others. Some former Stasi officers have organized themselves as a loud voice of opposition and have even blocked a recent plan to install plaques in honour of 40,000 East Berliners arrested for political crimes.

"Well, of course, they would," Henckel von Donnersmarck says. "They consider themselves innocent. You must remember that at its height, when this film is set in 1984, the Stasi employed 90,000 officers and 175,000 informants to keep tabs on East Germany's 16.7 million people. By comparison, Hitler's Gestapo employed 30,000 secret police for the entire country. Some [Stasi informants] spied voluntarily, but many were bribed or blackmailed into collaboration."

What also makes The Lives of Others so poignant is that it has focused attention again on Stasi documents first released in 2001; the Rosewood files are a vast mountain of paperwork compiled on its former citizens.

"One thing that I'm very happy about is that after my film, the number of Germans asking to see their Stasi files has doubled," Henckel von Donnersmarck says. "The Stasi were highly intelligent, elitist psychologists who did not just break people's bones, they broke people's spirits."

Special to The Globe and Mail