After I graduated from university at the end of 1989, I left South Africa and went travelling. My stated goals were to bring home a piece of the Berlin Wall and Christian Slater. It was quite something launching myself into the world in 1990, a world where Nelson Mandela had been released and the Berlin Wall had fallen, a world of thrilling potential and opportunity. I came home without visiting Berlin, because I ran out of money in Italy after ten months of waitressing and travelling, and I needed to start my journalism degree. I also came home without Christian Slater, but brought with me instead an English boyfriend who horrified everyone by hitch-hiking across South Africa alone, while carrying all his belongings in a plastic Spar packet.
While my need to be around dubious men has disappeared, I have always nursed the dream of Berlin and I finally got there last year in April. Since then I have been back three times, and I will continue to go at every opportunity I get because there is something about Berlin that makes me feel alive. As a South African, I think I relate to a city that is coming to terms with its divided past. Just one walk around the Jewish Museum demonstrates how Berlin looks backward with respect, sensitivity and compassion. At the same time, the many new buildings in the city, the sites with their looming cranes, and empty lots still waiting for development are testament to the city’s future. The Berlin of right now makes the word vibrant redundant; it is pulsing yet relaxed, colourful but with bleak pockets, hysterically busy yet relaxed, edgy but friendly. Berlin is not always beautiful, but it is welcoming and it doesn’t judge. I feel at home there, more than anywhere else in Germany, a country that has been good to me but is often still alien.
Today is Germany’s 18th day of National Unity, a public holiday celebrating the country’s reunification. According to Wikipedia, an alternative day to celebrate would have been November 9, the day the Wall came down in 1989. November 9 has other good resonances for Germans – it coincides with the anniversary of founding of the Weimar Republic in 1918 and with the defeat of Hitler’s first coup in 1923. However, November 9 was also the anniversary of Kristalnacht, so the day was considered inappropriate for a national holiday. This year the Tag der Deutschen Einheit is being celebrated in Hamburg, but Berlin will always remain the symbol of the Cold War, the division between East and West and the fall of communism.
All this is a long preamble to a movie I want to talk about: the Oscar-winning Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Directed by the spectacularly named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film is set in East Berlin in 1984 and centres on a Stasi loyalist Gerd Wiesler who is detailed with spying on playwright Georg Dreyman and his lover, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland. The pair, who are suspected of disloyalty to the state, are placed under 24-hour surveillance, their every word and deed recorded, right down to when and how they have sex. Wiesler, whose life is dedicated to the Stasi and who returns every night to his own depressingly empty life, slowly grows fond of the pair on whom he’s spying. Their vivid love-life throws his own sad use of prostitutes into relief, and their warm, friendly home makes his lonely flat seem increasingly cold. Theirs is a life of literature, love and ideas, which they manage to enjoy despite the Stasi net that tightens around them.
After the suicide of another playwright whose right to work has been taken away by the State, Georg and some companions write an article on East German control of the arts, which they smuggle to the West for publication. Wiesler is aware of what they are doing, but is torn: does he reveal their actions to his Stasi bosses in exchange for promotion, or does he protect the people to whom he is becoming more attached? The decision he makes sets in motion a series of events, some of them tragic, others redemptive.
Das Leben des Anderen is a slow burner, but it is gripping. Ulrich Mühe plays Wiesler with a buttoned-up, blank intensity, conveying his volte-face in creeping degrees. Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck are excellent as the lovers, while Ulrich Tukur as Wiesler’s boss is in turns ebullient and despicable. It’s a small, strong ensemble cast.
In many other Berlin movies (Wings of Desire, Goodbye Lenin, Lola Runs), the city also plays a starring role. It must be hard for a director to resist shots of the iconic Brandenburg Gates, the TV Tower or Checkpoint Charlie, but Henckel von Donnersmark does, restricting the action to the inside and outside of Georg’s flat, Wiesler’s apartment, one pub, a couple of theaters and some anonymous Stasi buildings. I don’t know whether these were artistic or budgetary restrictions, but they work. By keeping the locations intimate, and avoiding the sweeping views of Berlin, he recreates the intense, cloying atmosphere of late-era East Germany, where neighbours spied on neighbours and no-one was to be trusted. There are no ecstatic Wall-breaking scenes, just a voice-over on the radio that underscores how the fall of the Wall, while symbolic for the world, was for Berliners an intensely personal event.
Das Leben der Anderen is a testament to the human spirit. In the bleak days of surveillance, spying and thought control, it shows how there will always be those who do not allow their spirits to be broken, and who pursue the dream of free speech and liberation on behalf of the greater population. Today, in Germany, those people now live free, and we give thanks for that. They have earned their freedom. As a citizen of a land where freedom is still new, that speaks volumes to me.