The Human & The Ideological

“They hate unpredictability. They hate anything which is in any way different. Since real art encourages you to be different, encourages you to recognize that you are different and special, and that’s in a way the essence of art. I mean, art is the perfect antidote to any sort of collectivism, so it is just the natural enemy [to totalitarianism], which is why I think the art that rose to the top in the GDR for me isn’t art at all. It is something that vaguely resembles art, but it is not at all the deep kind of experience that will help you explore your soul.” –  Writer – director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck of The Lives of Other People

This is romantic, but it’s also true.  We’ve all become a bit cynical about art’s ability to truly make us conscious, certainly we know it doesn’t always make us good.   But the paradox is that it can both connect us to others but yet also lead us to understand (and even assert) our separate selves.  We see this dual process in the growth of the Stasi official, played by Ulrich Mühe in  The Lives of Other People (Das Leben der Anderen).  The dead hand of the government twists and destroys; it grinds down and isolates him not only from others but from an understanding of his own humanity.  The director describes the tension between principle and feeling; in America we have long seen this as the tension between heart and head, ideology and humanity.  Whatever we call them, we understand the process.  

Western artists often use the Holocaust, but seldom the pressures of the old communist regimes.  However, in the post 1989 world, such works have appeared from the old Soviet block.  Not only, it would seem, because of the new freedom to take these as subject but also because conclusions can be envisioned that are less cynical.  Cynicism, generally a protective response, mutes power.  Unlike the wry fatalism of Eastern European films before 1989, the barren years of Soviet domination is, post 1989, best contrasted with the pregnant belly of the heroine of Koyla, watching the hero, again at his seat in the orchestra, playing music that is both a political and personal celebration.  A decade later, a  German movie of quite a different tone and temperament, won.  However, it, too, sees music (and art in general) as subversive of the powerful and omnipresent Stasi-enforced state.  It draws many of its actors as well as its narrative from the East Germany of 1984. 

Thanks to the riches of Netflix, we watched it tonight.  We no longer read reviews much and our selections are dated - many of you have probably seen it.  If so, what was your take?  If you haven’t seen it, here is the late Bill Buckley’s review (of course he says it’s good in a much more interesting way than I can – his wit & love for art yet another way we will miss him) and here is an interview with the director; Lane’s New Yorker review is useful.

5 thoughts on “The Human & The Ideological”

  1. Let me submit this review, instead of my own: I don’t intend to see the film. I’ve heard enough about humanistic, re-born again agents of KGB to see that claim for what it is. A also seen another line of their defense – that they are the intellectual elite of the people trying to reform the organization from within, and another one – that every country has secret intelligence, why Russia (or Germany, or Romania, etc) should be an exception?

  2. Tatyana-

    I would agree with you except the KGB agent is a mere functionary, not really elite in any way. He was a tool, not a master.

    It’s a fine film!

  3. Sorry Foster, I should have done a search. I wondered why I put it on the Netflix list – should have known it was a recommendation from here. So, in addition to repetition, I’m guilty of ingratitude. Thanks, David.

    Tatayana, I can understand that the experience of the movie would be different for you. And I suspect you could take no pleasure from it.

    Still, it argues that it is the human that opposes the ideological – and in that way the argument is not unlike Orwell’s. Some systems have at their core an acknowledgement of the human and others can only succeed by treating such tendencies like bonsai trees – to be stunted and twisted. Or, indeed, that is a bad metaphor, for to succeed such a regime needs to destroy both a fellow feeling and its individual expression.

  4. The movie is not just about the stasi operative. He is the window, the means used for the real object of the movie, at least as far as I’m concerned. The focus of the movie is the corrosive effects of cooperation with tyranny on the creative spirit, as seen in the slow spiral of destruction travelled by the playwrite and his actress girlfriend.

    I also thought this movie was very good, but I thought “The Lost City” was better in many ways, not least because of the music. That movie also emphasizes the inevitable repressive actions of an implacable ideology when confronted with artistic creativity and an independent spirit.

    For a century, we have been subjected to the continuous yammering of collectivists of every conceivable stripe claiming that the commercialism and profit motive of capitalism destroys and corrupts the true artistic soul. At the same time, the “spiritual superiority” of the mass state and collectivist ideology has been asserted in every artistic sphere.

    In truth, as these movies attempt to show, the reality is just the opposite—it is the deadening, lifeless weight of the collective that crushes and warps anyone attempting to create or perform artistically with any integrity.

    “The Lives of Others” is a tragedy in the classic sense, as the flaws of the writer and his lady destroy their art, their love, and their lives.

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