Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Lives of Others

Last week, I saw two great films. One of them was "Amazing Grace", which I couldn't resist, as I love historical films, especially from my favourite era in human history (the 1700-1800s). I believe every famous historical figure should have a high quality bio-pic. In this film, it was nice to see the famous British Parliamentary debates existed a few centuries ago. Its a tactic I wish our government would adopt, as the opposing party figures debate issues with a lot of wit and a constant back and forth like some tennis match. It was nice to see and be inspired by one man's quest to end the slave trade as an institution. There is much to admire in this film and in William Wilberforce (whom I have regrettably never heard of).

But the film I really want to get to is the German film and winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar, "The Lives of Others." It's the one I had hoped would win over "Pan's Labyrinthe" (haven't seen that one yet)...mostly because German cinema has been suspiciously great in this century. I have my theories on why that is. During the 1980s and 1990s, French films dominated and France's film industry, I consider second only to America's. Anyhow, Germany is experiencing something of a cinematic renaissance, what with the excellent "Goodbye Lenin" (my second favorite foreign language film of all time), "Downfall" (a chilling portrayal of Hitler in his last 10 days), "The Edukators" (which questions the growing gap between the outrageously rich minority and the struggling to keep up everyone else), and now "The Lives of Others." These films came out within the last 3 years, and there is yet another German film I hadn't seen yet, "Before the Fall" (if I remember correctly, a sort of "Nazi Dead Poets Society"). Back to "The Lives of Others" takes place in the last 5 years of the German Democratic Republic, better known as East Germany, the most severe of the communist countries. It was a police state in which the secret police, the Stasi, acted as big brother to the populace. No word uttered in public, no subversive tendencies, no jokes about the leader, not even children's natural honesty were exempt from the prying ears of the Stasi. Even fellow Stasi members ratted each other out for promotions.

The film shows the "relationship" between a lonely Stasi eavesdropper and his clueless target, a playwright not known to be subversive against the state. One lives a dull life in service of the state, with hardly any meaning beyond his work. The other lives what many consider to be an enviable life (a healthy sexual life with a beautiful woman, the creative impulse to write, a circle of loyal friends). How the relationship plays out is very interesting, all the way to the brilliant conclusion.

As I watched this film, I couldn't help but think of our current government and their wish to turn America into a police state of their own. Now, since childhood, in fact, since the 1st grade, I have always been intrigued by police states, totalitarian countries, communists, and Nazi Germany. I don't know why it intrigued me, but it did in a way where I would sometimes pretend that I was a writer living in one of these societies and pondering how I would behave. Conservatives throughout my life love to call me a commie, but to hear them goosestep to the Bush regime and believe everything Rush and Rove and Coulter say is just baffling to me. They don't get it. The whole Nazi -- Commie divide is false. Conventional wisdom says that those two political systems are completely opposite, one is extreme right and the other extreme left. To that, I say, "bullshit!" They were the same. Both systems suppress any freedom of thought or action or word. They both want to control people and use a system of fear to keep people in line. Torture, detainment, unauthorized search and seizures, disappearing people, murder, covering up scandals, high rates of suicides, and forcing friends and family members to betray one another...these are hallmarks of totalitarian regimes, regardless of the Nazi or Commie label.

So, what have we in America? Under the investigative mandate of Ken Starr in the late 1990s, he forced a mother to testify against her own daughter, he imprisoned a lady who wouldn't betray her friendship with the president, he encouraged another lady to tape record conversations with a friend. These Gestapo tactics were a foretaste of what was to come in the Bush era. In the past 6 years, we've seen time and again Bush's disdain for the rule of law as he authorized wiretapping of phones, snooped in emails and letters, pushed the USA PATRIOT Act which grants the government the right to search people's homes without a warrant or notifying the owner that they were even there, they want to keep records of what people read, they authorized torture and rendition, they fired attorneys who wouldn't politicize their investigations, they waged illegal wars and lied about the rationale for it. On and on and on. How long will it take for conservatives in this country to recognize that Bush's government has more in common with the communist regimes than any Democratic president, which the rightwing often accuses them of.

That's why I think German cinema has seen a renaissance. Through their history of totalitarian regimes, first with the Nazis, then with the Commies, it's like they are warning us Americans how quickly a democratic, peace loving people can fall into the moral madness of corrupt leaders. They have enough distance from the Nazi era and even of the communist era to explore in greater detail how intrusive government has wrecked too many people's lives. We all have to take a stand against it. But I do think that because of Bush's incompetence, that is the biggest reason why we haven't completely turned to the dark side of human history. Hurricane Katrina was like a godsend, as it was the final straw that stripped away the myth of the Bush administration in being "compassionate conservative." Ever since then, he hasn't seen 50% approval ratings. With scandal after scandal piling on, I doubt he ever will.

Anyhow, I highly recommend "The Lives of Others." It transports you to a world I hope we will never experience. I love our freedom too much and thus why I will fight Republicanism all the way. I don't want totalitarianism to entrench itself on these shores. I hope you don't either.

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