Monday, February 26, 2007

"Watch thy neighbor, then pick up thy phone"

That's how Anthony Lane neatly characterized the late German Democratic Republic's widespread domestic spying in his recent New Yorker review of the movie that did, indeed, win the Best Foreign Film Oscar last night.
If there is any justice, this year’s Academy Award for best foreign-language film will go to “The Lives of Others,” a movie about a world in which there is no justice. It marks the début of the German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, of whom we have every right to be jealous. First, he is a stripling of thirty-three. Second, his name makes him sound like a lover with a duelling scar on his cheekbone in a nineteenth-century novel. And third, being German, he has an overwhelming subject: the postwar sundering of his country. For us, the idea of freedom, however heartfelt, is doomed to abstraction, waved by politicians as if they were shaking a flag. To Germans, even those of Donnersmarck’s generation, freedom is all too concrete, defined by its brute opposite: the gray slabs raised in Berlin to keep free souls at bay.

It is a tribute to the richness of the film that one cannot say for sure who the hero is. The most prominent figure is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), yet if you passed him on the street you wouldn’t give him a second glance, or even a first. He would spot you, however, and file you away in a drawer at the back of his mind. Wiesler, based in East Berlin, is a captain in the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, better known as the Stasi—the state security service, which, by the mid-nineteen-eighties, employed more than ninety thousand personnel. In addition, a modest hundred and seventy thousand East Germans became unofficial employees, called upon to snoop and snitch for the honor—or, in practical terms, the survival—of the state. “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Jesus said. The German Democratic Republic offered its own version: watch thy neighbor, then pick up thy phone.
"The Lives of Others" is about the tangled web of relationships involving Gerd Wiesler, the playwright he is spying on, and the playwright's mistress. The events in the film begin in 1984 and proceed all the way through the collapse of the GDR and its aftermath.

Christa Wolf covers somewhat related territory involving a writer and the collapse of the GDR in her semi-autobiographical stream of consciousness novel, In the Flesh. A best-seller in Germany several years ago, it was not reviewed by the New York Times and received little notice in the U.S., but it was one of my best reads last year.

It's about a woman writer feverishly fighting for her life as she struggles in a hospital with a mysterious, virulent infection that won't let go. Her illness is also a metaphor for the illness of the East German body politic. That sounds as if it might lead to some pretty heavy-handed symbolism, but no -- Wolf's account is a riveting, hallucinatory description of the patient's thoughts, feelings, memories, all interwoven with literary allusions (since she is, after all, a writer). Wolf has a great ear, and her use of language to evoke the different mental states of serious illness, in which the narrator alternates between "I" as active subject and "she" as passive object to describe herself, is brilliant.

The Complete Review's take on In the Flesh is one of the few reviews I've been able to find online.
Words are all she has, and this stream of them that makes up the novella is the hold she needs to get through the ordeal. The effect is even more obvious in the German original, but even in the English Wolf's use of extremely short sentences at moments when the patient is particularly weak and lost -- and then longer, more flowing sentences, either when she is stronger or drifting off -- is particularly effective. Even at her weakest the attempt at describing what is happening -- and she always seems to be trying to put this experience into words -- suggests the inner strength needed to get through all this.


Illness is, of course, also metaphor, and this story isn't just about a personal struggle against a life-threatening infection, an internal rot. The patient lives in a state -- East Germany, just before its collapse -- that is also rotten within. From the shoddy surgical gloves (repeatedly the doctor needs two or three pair because some inevitably tear) to medicine that has to be rushed over from West Berlin, the signs of how decrepit the state truly is are everywhere.


Recollections, dreams, and hallucinations add to the picture of the state gone wrong, in particular in the character of Urban ("whom I once liked very much, whom I liked less and less as the years went by"). The nearly effortless mix of allusion, reflection, and reality impresses: there's a surprising depth to the text in how they are woven together. From the straightforward and clinical to the very playful (such as the description of the bronze statue of Brecht who: "studies us slyly out of the corner of his eye, pretending that he's dead, a tried-and-true strategy not available to everyone") it's a remarkably multi-faceted (and inter-connected) text.
Christa Wolf's personal backstory also relates to the subject matter of "The Lives of Others." Probably Communist East Germany's best-known novelist in the West, Wolf was born in 1929, grew up under the Third Reich and then went on to success as a writer in the GDR. During the Cold War, she was traveled widely to the West, where she was seen as a brave, feminist dissident who somehow managed to stay out of major trouble with the authorities. She was probably best known in the West for Cassandra, her feminist reimagining of the Cassandra legend, with sly allusions to the GDR mixed in.

But after the wall fell, a period of disillusionment set in, when thousands of people's reputations were tarnished by the release of Stasi records. It turned out that Wolf's position in the GDR wasn't quite what people had thought. Not only had the Stasi spied on Wolf, but they had also recruited her to spy for them. This became a huge story in Germany. Wolf was reviled as a collaborator. Her accommodation with the regime -- such as it was -- was a vivid example of how the corrupt, totalitarian East German state tarnished everything and everyone it touched.

Eventually a sense of proportion returned to Germany. Wolf insisted on publishing her complete Stasi records, and it became clear that she never gave the Stasi any information of any importance. While the NYT apparently hasn't been able to forgive her, Wolf is once again a highly respected writer in her homeland, as the success of In the Flesh demonstrates. And with "The Lives of Others" winning an Academy Award, it's probably no coincidence that In the Flesh has just been reissued in paperback here. Check it out.

1 comment:

Nonanon said...

I LOVE Anthony Lane; have you read his "Nobody's Perfect" (a collection of his New Yorker writings)? And, he's one to be talking about "striplings," he started pretty young for the New Yorker himself!