Personal Journeys with Gramma

Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.

Government Stalkers

In the seventies, we used to joke that the FBI had files on us all—not merely Muhammed Ali. Why would they bother, we believed then. Today, you can search online with your cell for a gift for a friend, and suddenly you’re hacked. We don’t know how much information about us is recorded in the name of convenient shopping or efficient service. What if that information were used against us? Back in 1984, the idea wasn’t remotely humorous to people sealed into East Germany, behind the Wall. What if world citizens today with urges toward control and far right leanings had access to all the private aspects of our lives? Merely being socially directed to propaganda has altered the definitions of values numerous Americans hold.

As I bemoaned losing the weekly DVDs I have come to depend on for thought-provoking films from Netflix, I almost didn’t watch the Academy Award-winning German film THE LIVES OF OTHERS. I would have missed a touching and important experience. Spending time in the bleak world of former East Germany is not cheerful. People who fantasize that being led by autocrats would be preferable to messy democracy might change their minds if they watched the Stasi (secret police) officer Wiesler teaching a class in how to wear down a citizen to extract a confession that he knew about someone trying to escape to the liberal West. And how would today’s control enthusiasts feel when they see the actual banks and banks and banks of files that were kept on every East German citizen by informants who were often coworkers or friends coerced into the job?

A central character in the story is an esteemed playwright whose work has not been controversial, but his live-in lover and lead actress is desired by a State Minister who often covertly traps her into sex. Toward the goal of removing the playwright from the picture, the Minister directs the Stasi officer Wiesler to bug each inch of the writer’s apartment and keep files reporting every word said and action taken. Surely the writer will eventually slip and say something damning so he can be jailed—especially after a dear friend and artistic colleague is black-listed. The odd consequence of reporting each detail of the lives of these others is that, as he listens in to the playwright’s days and nights, Wiesler is introduced to poetry, music, love, and empathy that have been totally absent in his life. The effect is gradual but dramatic.

Most of the people involved in the film—director, actors, etc.—had actual life experience in East Germany, so their performances were unimpeachably authentic. The 2006 German audiences appreciated having the story of their humiliation revealed after the Wall fell and they were given access to their own files, but their emotions were understandably mixed. The actor Ulrich Muhe who played Wiesler had been, in fact, the object of surveillance by certain friends and coworkers beginning when he was in high school. In an interview, the actor shrugged that so many others suffered far more than he. So many lost essential portions of their humanity, if not their lives.

With today’s technology, how much easier and completely could a modern government with eyes toward utterly dominating the lives of its citizens track us? More than our sex lives could be controlled. The film reminds us of the preciousness of our freedom to be human.

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