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February 2007 - Nr. 2


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The Lives of Others

   German Film is making big international inroads. Just as the Germany presidency of the Council of the European Union started the Goethe Institute Toronto invited sponsors (The Consulate General of Germany, Mongrel Media, PEN Canada and the Globe and Mail), film people, media and business leaders to a red carpet event to celebrate the magic of German film with a special presentation of "The Lives of Others" or "Das Leben der Anderen", a German film which was shown at last years Toronto Film Festival.

The Lives of Others - Sebastian Koch as Georg Dreyman & Martina Gedeck as Christa-Maria Sieland

Like all good films this one also deserves to be seen at least twice: once as a spectator only, and once as a professional observer. To see it in the company of compatriots and experts, with the wonderfully talented director and writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck present and available for comments, that is indeed a special occasion.

In Germany the film already won 7 Lolas, which is the equivalent to our North American Oscar. It won for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and best Production design. It has also won Best European Film 2006 from the European Film Academy.

Here it was nominated for a Golden Globe award as best foreign language film, and that is also the honour it shares with the Canadian entry of Deepa Mehta’s "Water" at he upcoming Oscar festivity.

The Lives of Others - Ulrich Mühe as Captain Gerd Wiesler & Ulrich Tukur as Lieutenant Colonel Grubritz

As Dr. Arpad Soelter said as he welcomed the many dignitaries and guests: let’s keep our fingers crossed for Florian’s Meisterwerk. The young man itself is Germany’s best example of the current new breed of filmmakers: intelligent, eloquent and full of humour and self-irony.

All of these qualities became even more apparent when Richard Crouse of the TV show "Reel to Reel" engaged the director in conversation after the film presentation.

To speak about the film is not that easy. It is not anything anyone would have expected. There is no nostalgia; there is not just the bad Stasi and the poor downtrodden citizen. There is a mosaic, a composite of all the things we heard and found hard to believe about any regime at any time. It is made so real by the excellent writing, directing, set design (everything, right down to the last prop, is an original, not a copy or imitation) and the actual life experiences of the actors portraying these very difficult parts, most notably the award winning Ulrich Muehe, one of Germany’s most acclaimed actors, who plays Captain Gerhard Wiesler, a Stasi operative, who …. Well, that would be giving the story away.

The film makes us consider the ultimate questions we have always asked ourselves and find hard to answer, because there are so many variables and justifications possible. And if we are totally honest we must admit that it is not a regime that is responsible for all the nations deeds, good or bad, but every individual in that nation. People make up the whole of society, and they decide what they do or do not want to do. They allow themselves to be manipulated or they rebel or quietly go away. These are the things that weave a complex net of humanity in which the life of an individual can get lost totally as unimportant, even if it is not.

I can hardly imagine a more definitive film about the subject of the Stasi. Nearly everything that can be said has been said: Is an evil person all evil, or is there also some good to be found somewhere?

Is a good person all good, or also capable of a bad deed? And if such a good person commits a deed he or she considers to be bad or evil, how does this person fare after that? How does a bad person, who was never really found out publicly, behave afterwards? These questions are of course relevant under any circumstances but especially in a state like the former GDR.

Do "good" people - gute Menschen - really exist in a truly rotten world, where 200 hundred thousand people either worked directly in the employ of the State-Security organisation or helped under duress to spy on the rest of the citizens with the enforced help of an even greater number of private helpers?

Dr. Soelter reminded us that it is over and that the downfall of this horrible regime occurred without bloodshed. But while that is true for the state of the GDR as part of a whole Germany, there are stories that some people are still persecuted by Stasi operatives that have not been fully debriefed and who have not ended cycle on their old "contracts".

We had a case right here in Canada with East German refugees, who were told by the Canadian authorities that Germany should be able to protect them. In their experience this did not happen. 3 attempts on his life were made while he was in West Germany, according to him. He was the last of an artist group; the others had already vanished through various inexplicable accidents. He felt that he and his wife had to flee Canada as well without forwarding address, which is a real pity, because he was a fantastically talented artist. His paintings on my wall remind us daily that freedom asks a price of us: we must be continuously aware and willing to fight back. Freedom does not come by itself, nor does it stay without effort and responsible actions.

The film "The Lives of Others" is to run in Toronto and Vancouver starting February 9th, or so I heard but was not able to verify. Please watch out for this important film and see it!

Sybille Forster-Rentmeister.


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