Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Lives of Others

(Das Leben der Anderen, Germany, 2006)

What’s the worst job in the world? Sewage worker? Prostitute? Butt-buddy to Donald Trump? I’ve got one that can beat any of those (though it would be a photo finish with the last one): Spy. There is no filthier employment to be had anywhere. You deal in lies and betrayal, and even if you begin with a pure heart, even if you believe you’re fighting for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or truth, justice, and the American way, you end up a twisted little soul looking over your shoulder all the time and jumping at loud noises. Are they coming for me this time? Soon the ends justify the means, and one day you step back and notice that you and your enemy are exactly alike. That, or you reach the point where you just don’t give a shit and wouldn’t know life, liberty, etc. if they came up and smacked you in the face. In fact, you’d wonder what their secret agenda was.

The East German Stasi didn’t even start from a position of moral rectitude. They were a Gestapo from the gitgo. Before the Wall fell, there were basically three types of East Germans: those being watched by the Stasi, those informing for the Stasi, and those actually in the Stasi … and those categories could overlap. Though they could be brutal (a favorite method of following people was to contaminate them with radiation and then follow them with a Geiger counter), and though torture was a part of their bag of tricks, they never reached the excesses of the Gestapo or the KGB, with millions dead or imprisoned. They didn’t need to. The whole country was a prison, and they seldom needed to get actual blood on their hands with their proven methods of interrogation and intimidation. (I could put in a long rant here about how far along this road the CIA and other American agencies already are, but I suspect you know that. It’s an easy path, one step leads to another, and before long you wake up to find that you are a torturer nation, a nation that locks people up without trial or charge.)

This movie shows all that, but it has a larger, much more interesting agenda. Is redemption possible for a man who works for such an agency? A man who is a master of interrogation, who seems to have no scruples about anything? A man who hides in an attic and listens in on people: a good Socialist playwright and his actress girlfriend, two people who have an actual life, and soon realizes the only reason he’s up there is that a high Party official wants to fuck the girlfriend and so needs to disgrace the playwright? I won’t say more, but this movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 2006. If it hadn’t been in German, it might have won the whole enchilada, it’s that good.