THE BLOG

The Lives of Others: Lessons Not Learned

04/16/2014 06:38 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2014

That history repeats itself is a known truth borne from both philosophical reminders and from experience, for humanity has a way of forgetting its most important lessons, even those from fewer than three decades ago.

There are those alive now who do not remember or weren't alive during he Cold War-the constant strain of East versus West, the arms race, and a world subsumed by two distinct superpowers whose every movement, every action was a means of stymying the other in a real-life game of Risk -- holding the planet in the balance in a decades-long battle for supremacy.

The United States and the Soviet Union were in what seemed like a war which would yield one of two things: either the perpetual continuity of a powerful stalemate until one side broke, or at some unknown fork in the road, a path to ultimate destruction.

This fear was categorically real. The Nuclear Age was a palpable presence, and it hung in the air like an ominous fog, and the stakes were truly high. Those of us who remember can still hear in our minds the newscasts or some "Special Report" when in some part of the world, the United States and the Soviet Union went head to head, whether diplomatically or during proxy wars -- visible or surreptitious support of opposite sides in certain asymmetric conflicts, and often in the developing world, some of which had the capacity to explode into the potential for nuclear confrontation. Some of us remember the truly paralytic fear and significance of DEFCON (i.e. "Defense Condition") 1.

During the Cold War, Germany had been split post-WWII into two separate states to represent the spoils of the Allied Powers -- the Western nations, and the Soviet Union. East Germany -- or the German Democratic Republic (GDR), in German, Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) -- in being a satellite of sorts of the Soviet Union (despite being considered sovereign in 1955, it still had Soviet troops ensconced by virtue of the Potsdam Agreement), was under the fist of Communism, and their henchmen in keeping the DDR in control were the secret police known as the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit -- MfS / Ministry for State Security). Their job was to keep watch on the citizens of East Germany and single out any one or any organization which would be considered a threat to the state.

This included -- as any communist regime would -- artists, actors, writers, directors, playwrights, musicians, academics, intellectuals-anyone who could surreptitiously influence the thinking of the public, and whose influence might indeed be considerably powerful were they also to be successful-including were they successful enough to be an influence outside the DDR.

In such cases, those with that kind of notoriety and influence might feel enough audacity-and have access-to perhaps be tempted to reveal the actual conditions under which they and other citizens were forced to live. Such people are always targeted in such regimes, as they were potentially very dangerous to the overall stability of the state and its hold over its citizens.

Give anyone a whiff of freedom, and watch how quickly they are apt to become agitators, on some human level somehow believing freedom is a human right. Instead, surveillance by the state was one of the most profound and powerful forms of both information and a means of control.

The Lives of Others, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, winning the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2006, depicts this reality with the starkness of how life in the DDR must truly have felt, represented by two sets of characters, the Stasi and those who commanded it, and the artistic community made up of the writers, directors, actor and playwright who are bending to the point of breaking under the system and the inability to speak, write, or act unless it is according to the will-or consent-of the state.

All DDR scenes-in the temporary detention center-in the home of the Stasi officer who is one of the people at the center of the film-are bleak, gray, flat and institutional. Among the artists, there is the warmth and the texture of earth tones which seek to break out of the gray-a metaphor, perhaps, of the natural will of humans who are forced into submission. Like the gray of winter, spring will come-the inevitable will of the human soul, like the earth, warm and soft, and ready for the seeds of whatever can most grow in fertile soil.

In this case, there is no more fertile soil than that of the powerful mind and soul of one who finds himself succumbing to the natural will to express truth-and such truth, as the old adage goes, at some point will out...regardless of the personal cost.

In the midst of this struggle is Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, played by former East German actor, the late Ulrich Mühe, who is charged with keeping eyes-and ears-on the playwright Georg Dreyman, whose play he has just seen, and whose lover, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (shortened by the Stasi in their reports as CMS) is the object of desire by Minister Bruno Hempf, whose influence, and lascivious greed, makes Dreyman a target. He is both an influential playwright and a supposed "believer" in the state-but that means nothing in the face of the lust of a government official used to getting-and possessing-anything he wants. The Stasi-and Wiesler-are to find something on Dreyman-whatever it takes.

These people's lives mean nothing in the balance, and perhaps can even be used, Wiesler is told, to advance his career if he succeeds in finding some means for Dreyman to be implicated of any crime against the DDR.

Such are the priorities of a powerful state hell-bent on maintaining control. Implicating another, or subjugating someone with less power, has its privileges. And if one won't cooperate, what better means than fear to cause one to conform. Whether the threat of surveillance, of being taken to interrogation for days without sleep, or being kept from doing the one thing which makes you feel human-even if it means offering someone you love in a Faustian bargain, one will be forced to submit.

One must also never forget the threat of years of imprisonment-even death-at even the slightest political, creative, or personal affront. One need only look the wrong way at someone in a position of authority, and your name goes on the list. More evidence, and unless you have something to offer, you may never see the light of day again.

It is in this reality, and in becoming a secret part of the lives of Dreyman, Christa-Maria, and their circle of friends, that Wiesler is given a glimpse into another world. They are unknowingly under constant surveillance-every word is being heard-every movement documented. Their world even amidst the oppression of everyday life in the DDR is somehow alive. The depth of friendship, the love between man and woman, the true emotion expressed in the word and actions of these men and the one woman among them-awakens the humanity which has been suppressed by years of constant propaganda and the life of a Stasi officer-in which one may as well be a machine-never showing emotion-never betraying vulnerability, and instead are taught to manipulate the emotions and vulnerabilities of others. No personal connection-no emotion-is sacred. Anything can be used to break a human soul who has been targeted, and to do so, one cannot be seen as human.

The act of listening-truly listening-is an intimate action. Wiesler is a man whom we can see is strung tight-and seemingly almost imperviously so. And perhaps because he is so stoic, by popular rather than philosophical definition, we must reasonably assume that there is much emotion there-even if it is unseen. Those who will not bend at some point must break. That emotion would find catharsis somehow-and whatever human being-whatever man hiding underneath the severity of his Stasi facade is at first almost subconsciously drawn to the poignancy of their lives-and later, ultimately to the point where he is willing to sacrifice the necessity of his role-and his job-to keep some semblance of the power of these people's souls intact.

Once one feels that freedom-and the truth of such emotion-he can never go back. And this is paralleled by Dreyman's personal arc-the celebrated playwright who has willingly supported the idea of the state. Where once he could find expression within the limitations of the system, with the subjugation of his dearest friends-including one's suicide after having been implicated-to the subjugation of his own lover-he comes to realize that the system under which he has tried to work is a behemoth whose means of existence are dependent upon the destruction of others. This destruction has touched him on the deepest personal levels to the point where he, too, cannot go back.

The Lives of Others depicts the choices we must make when faced with a similar choice, in a world whose brutality and subjugation is just as great, and, similarly, in which we have the power to express truth, should we find the courage.

It also shows that only when the stakes are truly great that the true character of someone will be known-and this is shown, heart and soul, by Mühe as Weisler, and Sebastian Koch as Dreyman. For two characters who have never formally met, their lives are inexorably linked, as is the power of the choices they have chosen to make, each of which, in a rather poignant metaphor in the film, shows him to be a good man.

In watching this film, many will forget that again, while the characters are fictitious, the conditions are based on actual history. And even now in different parts of the world, even our own, limitations on essential freedoms continue to occur -- whether openly or surreptitiously -- in the name of security, hegemony, power, and control.

As we choose to ignore signs and events of history repeating itself, from NSA surveillance to former KGB officer Vladimir Putin's quest for the glory of Russia, many are still preferring to think old hatreds, affronts, political and economic interests or reminiscences of power have disappeared from the equation, and that current crises are occurring within a historical vacuum.

These realities have only been buried, waiting to rise when the time comes, should we let them, and should we choose not to awaken from what, if we are not careful, will be a continued collective and complicit slumber.