The Lives of Others is set in 1984 East Berlin, five years before Gorbachevs “glasnost” policies, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The film centers on the East German Ministry for State Security, which is a secret police known as the Stasi, created by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in an attempt to maintain its power and protect the survival of Socialism in East Berlin. The secret police force consisted of 100,000 investigators and over 200,000 informants. The Stasi investigated any and all citizens in Berlin who posed a threat to socialism. The investigations often included wiretapping and tailgating, with every action being meticulously documented. As a result of the Stasi, those who were found guilty were arrested, interrogated, imprisoned, and in many cases, blacklisted. In the film, loyal Stasi officer Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler is assigned to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman. Wiesler wiretaps the apartment, and investigates Dreyman’s activities, writing a detailed report every evening.
Fear is a common theme throughout the film. Every citizen fears the GDR and the Stasi, knowing that their lives can be critically altered if they do not oblige to the system placed before them. Early in the film we see Dreyman neighbor watching the surveillance team bug his apartment. Wiesler is aware of the woman’s observations and provides strict orders for her to keep quiet, and reminds her of the consequences if she does not obey. Later in the film the Dreyman asks the woman to help him with his tie, and the neighbor is uneasy about associating herself with Dreyman because she does not want to be associated with him. That scene conveys a message about how a Stasi investigation can harm not only a person’s career but their social lives as well. Dreyman’s friend and former director Albert Jerska is an example of how the Stasi can damage and destroy an individual’s life. Jerska was once a prominent stage director with an optimistic outlook on life, after an investigation Jerska was blacklisted and could never direct again. The effects of his blacklisting affected the way others treated him, as they wished to distance themselves from him in fear of the Stasi. As a result of the Stasi, Jerska lost all hope in life and took his own life in order to escape the restrictions placed on him under the GDR. The power of blacklisting is displayed maliciously in the film, as Dreyman girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland is forced to become an informant for the Stasi in order to preserve her career as an actress. That scene offers the audience and explanation on how the GDR was capable of convincing citizens to report on their friends and family.
Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, the loyal Stasi investigator, is an example of the ideal German citizen in the GDR. He is introduced as an educator, teaching his students how to become Stasi investigators. He never doubts the GDR and shows no mercy in fighting the enemies of socialism. His personal life in the film conveys a message of what life was like for the investigators living the socialist lifestyle in the GDR. Wiesler lives a lonely life in a dull apartment, eating food from a tube, and watching the evening news. His life is dedicated to the GDR and because of that, his life is empty. To suppress his loneliness, Wiesler orders prostitutes to fill the void in his life. Listening to the lives of others makes Wiesler aware of his loneliness, and he compares his life to Dreyman, envying his happiness. After discovering the motives behind the investigation, Wiesler cannot help but feel compassion for the writer he is spying on, and ignores Dreyman’s anti socialist actions in his nightly reports. Although Wiesler is a loyal socialist, he becomes dissatisfied with the Minister of the GDR, and questions the ethical reasons behind government monitoring. Within a few months, he went from a proud socialist citizen to an apathetic Stasi employee.
In November 1989, the GDR police unexpectedly opened the borders in Berlin, and reunited east and West Germany. Germans began tearing down the Berlin Wall and were making way for reunification. The end of the GDR marked a turning point for capitalism in East Germany. The film Goodbye Lenin! centers on Alex, a young man who’s proud socialist mother falls into a coma weeks before the fall of the Berlin wall. Eight months later, she wakes up in the unified Germany, but has no idea that these changes have happened. The doctors explain her fragile condition to Alex, explaining that any excitement could lead to a fatal relapse. Alex and his sister Ariane are placed as caregivers to their mother and are forced to come up with creative ways to keep their mother from discovering the truth that everything she believed in has collapsed. Different from the Lives of Others, this story follows the lives of an ordinary East Berlin family struggling to cope with the changing world.
Goodbye Lenin! is set during the fall of the Berlin Wall, which allows the audience to witness the changes in East Germany and how they affect the population. By opening up to the western world, Berlin was introduced to capitalist markets, and easterners wanted to become a part of it. The film displays how the youths in East Germany were more excited about the reunification than the older generation. The young people traveled to the west for the first time, and viewed West Germany as though it was a huge shopping mall. Ariane represents the younger generation, and how the youth was attracted to consumerism due to the division. Ariane changes her style from the old bleak colors of the GDR and adopts the bright colors of the west. She even starts changing things around the house by throwing away all the furniture and piling it outside with the rest. The new open market economy offered a variety of products from different brands allowing citizens to purchase items of higher quality that had not previously been available. There is a scene in the film in which Alex is desperately trying to maintain the illusion that the GDR still exists, while Ariane grows upset with his behavior because she prefers the new products. She makes a statement about the diapers in the scene explaining how the ones from the old GDR are of poor quality and how she prefers to use the new ones that are available. Ariane is eager to adopt change since it is completely new to her, and she makes choices that are not always in her best interest, such as leaving the university to sell hamburgers at Burger King. The actions made by Ariane represent how eager the East Germans were to get rid of socialism but failed to question how the German economy will be affected by the reunification.
The former and the new economic system displaced many citizens, especially those who were most comfortable with the GDR. Following the fall of the wall, citizens in the East experienced massive unemployment due to the overcrowded job market. In the film, Alex finds a new job by submitting his name into a job lottery, which he is lucky enough to win. The unemployed characters in the film, mostly the older generation, have a difficult time adapting because everything they believed in was over. Economic change not only effected employment but also the currency of the former GDR. After discovering the location of his mother’s money, Alex goes to the bank to convert the old currency into deutschmarks only to learn that the deadline has passed. Alex immediately becomes distressed when he discovers that his mother’s life savings had become useless pieces of paper. That scene reminds the audience that although East Germany has been freed from socialist oppression, they now face new economic challenges. The cultural wave of capitalism that Germans openly support is the same capitalism that has destroyed the savings of millions.
Throughout the film, Alex is desperately trying to maintain the illusion that the GDR still exists for the sake of his mother. He seeks out old food brands, forces everyone to wear the old style of clothing, and creates fictional TV report. His extreme tactic to preserve a world for his mother is not so different from the way she raised him. In the most powerful scene in the film, Alex’s mother confesses the truth about his father. She reveals that she had once had a plan to move the family to West Berlin to meet with their father, but changed her mind because she feared the GDR. Her confession challenges everything her children were taught to believe, as she reveals that her loyalty towards the GDR was not genuine, but was instead a product of fear. She never left for Berlin and dedicated her life to socialism to ensure that her children would not be taken away from her. The mother’s confession relates to the “Lives of Others” because it displays the fear that ordinary citizen felt towards the Stasi and the GDR.
Goodbye Lenin! tells a fun, heartfelt story about an ordinary family during the reunification of Germany. The power of the Stasi and the influence they have on people is depicted very gently in the film. The director shows the forcefulness of the agents and how they would go about investigating a home, but failed to show how and why the Stasi provoked fear, and instead relied on the audience’s memories of the horrific past. The film pokes fun at the old system of the east while conveying the hardships that citizens experienced in a pleasant and family-friendly tone. The film did not accurately represent the dark time in the German past. The Lives of Others on the other hand, is a harsh, realistic depiction of the dark side of former East Germany. The film has a darker tone and is shot with low lighting to convey the dreary feeling of what it was like to live in East Germany. The film’s story included death, drugs, and corruption to accurately portray Germany’s past. The most disturbing aspect in the films are the scenes with Stasi officers discussing surveillance operations. Their conversations are casual, and spying on the lives of others is an everyday norm.
The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin! are two films that allow an audience to relive Germany’s gloomy past. The films displayed every aspect of life in East Germany, and the restriction’s citizens faced. The clothing available to the Germans were dull and grey, and the single product markets demonstrate how oppressed these people were, and they all knew it. On the other side of the wall capitalism flourished, and citizens were not forced to follow a government they did not support. It is this unbelievable to think that twenty years ago such oppressive governments existed throughout Europe. It is important for films like these to be made to show people around the world the realities of what it was like to live during the GDR.
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