It's important to know. It's necessary to understand how things work. And then it's vital to act rightly in the face of the truth.
That's the message in The Lives of Others, a gripping film with one of the best final three words since Ironman. A Stasi officer in East Berlin, with eyes and ears on a playwright of dubious intent, decides to help the man just this one time. That sets off a foot-in-the-door type of psychological effect: Once we help a little, we tend to help a little more.
The director, von Donnersmarck, was only eleven and living in the relative safety of West Berlin in 1984, the Orwellian year when the film begins. Timothy Garton Ash (there be bold spoilers!) laments the details of the film: The Stasi weren't so well dressed. The students would have been in uniform. The entire thing looked too Western.... But that kind of truth is less important than the reality of the fear and desperation of the times - the general anxiety of day to day life when we can trust no one. It becomes all too clear the reality of the slippery slope we could face if we continue to allow C-51-type intrusions into our freedoms.
Within a fictional totalitarian regime, Alan Moore explained, "Artists use lies to tell the truth," and that line had a presence as I watched. This idea is crucial in the film when the artists' lives and livelihood are at stake as they embed statistics in poetic prose. But that very risk is what makes spreading the truth all the more important.
Garton Ash asks if high culture humanizes us, and he shares this bit of trivia:
"Maxim Gorky records Lenin saying that he can’t listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata because it makes him want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of little people, whereas in fact those little heads must be beaten, beaten mercilessly, to make the revolution. As a first-year film student, von Donnersmarck wondered “what if one could force a Lenin to hear the Appassionata,” and that was the original germ of his movie."If anything can turn us from cruelty, it might be art. Films like this one precariously transport us to a place of heightened empathy as we live through the character's dilemma. We become a little more moral, a little more courageous in the process.
What affected me most in this film, however, was the plot driven by one man of power unable to completely have the woman he desired. People must pay the price for his loss. This is an issue no less disquieting in our pseudo-enlightened times thirty years hence where men scorned still prove menacing whether on a real life date or during on-line encounters. Women can expect sexually aggressive threats from total strangers for politely rejecting advice. Stealing away with a woman to force her hand in marriage has been illegal since the 12th century, but I fear tactics have merely gotten more subtle in their execution.