This weekend, the Outliers went to see the excellent, award-winning German film The Lives of Others. Last weekend, we saw The Last King of Scotland, for which Forest Whitaker won a well-deserved Oscar. In between, we watched the German film Der Tunnel (via Netflix), which inspired in me an inchoate train of thought about people who understand living in a world of sometimes deadly moral compromise and those who don’t have a clue. But it was the sharp contrast between two starring roles in The Last King of Scotland and The Lives of Others that finally clarified it for me.
The fictional character in The Last King that most
incensed exasperated me was not the disarmingly witty and manipulative, but increasingly brutal and paranoid tyrant. (I had expected him to be a monster.) It was the bloody fool of a Scottish doctor: a cocky, self-satisfied, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing, culturally ignorant, sexually predatory, criminally naive moron who endangers more lives than he saves–a type all too common on university campuses worldwide (and, of course, in governments). The doctor finds out too late that others play by different rules with more deadly consequences than he has ever imagined. You’d think a real do-gooder might have exercised a little more caution and self-restraint as a guest in someone else’s house. But he is really an adventurer, not a do-gooder. The world is both his oyster and his china shop, and he manages to destroy three pearls he touches–the health minister, one of the dictator’s wives, and a fellow doctor–while leaving other lives shattered as well. You start out sympathizing with him, but when he finally escapes Uganda, my reaction was “Good bloody riddance!”
The Stasi spook at the center of The Lives of Others presents a stark contrast: a pathologically repressed, anal-retentive automaton whose only emotions are vicarious, the sole purpose of whose odious vocation is to incriminate others, not to heal or rescue them. And yet, this meticulously mistrusting drone knows very well how his world works and where its dangers lie. He studies his quarry long and hard before deciding what action to take (or not), finding ever more reasons to doubt the motives of his bosses and to empathize with his prey. In the end, he manages to carry out an anonymous good deed that allows at least one pearl to form in this slimy milieu of universal suspicion, deception, and betrayal. This repellant slimeball turns out to be ein guter Mensch after all. You start out loathing him, but you end up appreciating the self-effacing derring-do of this spook cum guardian angel, and so does the writer he has spied upon. Even though I had anticipated how the writer would convey his thanks, my eyes still flooded over as the moment arrived.
The story in The Lives of Others begins in 1984, and conveys only too well the Romania I encountered in that same year, about which more anon. It will take some time to compose. In the meantime, let me close with an excerpt from John O. Koehler’s Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police (Westview, 2000).
“The Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people,” according to Simon Wiesenthal of Vienna, Austria, who has been hunting Nazi criminals for half a century. “The Gestapo had 40,000 officials watching a country of 80 million, while the Stasi employed 102,000 to control only 17 million.” One might add that the Nazi terror lasted only twelve years, whereas the Stasi had four decades in which to perfect its machinery of oppression, espionage, and international terrorism and subversion.
To ensure that the people would become and remain submissive, East German communist leaders saturated their realm with more spies than had any other totalitarian government in recent history. The Soviet Union’s KGB employed about 480,000 full-time agents to oversee a nation of 280 million, which means there was one agent per 5,830 citizens. Using Wiesenthal’s figures for the Nazi Gestapo, there was one officer for 2,000 people. The ratio for the Stasi was one secret policeman per 166 East Germans. When the regular informers are added, these ratios become much higher: In the Stasi’s case, there would have been at least one spy watching every 66 citizens! When one adds in the estimated numbers of part-time snoops, the result is nothing short of monstrous: one informer per 6.5 citizens. It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests.
Like a giant octopus, the Stasi’s tentacles probed every aspect of life. Full-time officers were posted to all major industrial plants. Without exception, one tenant in every apartment building was designated as a watchdog reporting to an area representative of the Volkspolizei (Vopo), the People’s Police. In turn, the police officer was the Stasi’s man. If a relative or friend came to stay overnight, it was reported. Schools, universities, and hospitals were infiltrated from top to bottom. German academe was shocked to learn that Heinrich Fink, professor of theology and vice chancellor at East Berlin’s Humboldt University, had been a Stasi informer since 1968. After Fink’s Stasi connections came to light, he was summarily fired. Doctors, lawyers, journalists, writers, actors, and sports figures were co-opted by Stasi officers, as were waiters and hotel personnel. Tapping about 100,000 telephone lines in West Germany and West Berlin around the clock was the job of 2,000 officers.
Stasi officers knew no limits and had no shame when it came to “protecting the party and the state.” Churchmen, including high officials of both Protestant and Catholic denominations, were recruited en masse as secret informers. Their offices and confessionals were infested with eavesdropping devices. Even the director of Leipzig’s famous Thomas Church choir, Hans-Joachim Rotch, was forced to resign when he was unmasked as a Spitzel, the people’s pejorative for a Stasi informant.
UPDATE: Historians of Africa on the H-Africa discussion list have weighed in with a lot of good critical commentary on The Last King of Scotland. Here’s the best take I’ve read so far, by Brian Coyle at UC Berkeley.
In three recent films about African atrocity, The Last King of Scotland, Blood Diamond, and Hotel Rwanda, it interesting what gets said but not shown.
In Hotel Rwanda, an excellent film in my opinion, the conflict’s root cause is briefly posited in a didactic moment among key characters. The fact is given, unquestioned, that Belgians introduced a false distinction within an amorphous African population, granting some the ethnicity Tutsi to dignify a ruling, if non-European, class. The ethnic distinction that Hutu and Tutsi claim to be physical and deep is really a crafty Belgian charade. This neatly fits a dominant paradigm of social construction, but is hardly a scholarly consensus. In Blood Diamond, an average film in my opinion, the European-American-South African root cause is even more pedantically coded, right into the title. Little if any reference is given to the Liberian origin of the conflict, run by invaders from Liberia (though some were Sierra Leonians returning from time spent in the Liberian conflict). The diamond mines were fuel thrown on an already blazing fire. Also, the audience is left to assume that it was diamond-interest mercenaries who finally uprooted the rebels, which is untrue. In Last King of Scotland, a lousy film in my opinion, the English are made unequivocally responsible for Amin’s rise to power, and of course the Scottish doctor plays a key role in causing the deaths of the people we see.
Behind each of these geopolitical explanations is the same dynamic. Causal agency is granted to non-Africans, and removed from Africans. The big-budget films dare to say that the West is the root of African evil, and Africans are history’s mere pawns.
But what isn’t shown? Atrocities. Hotel Rwanda does show scattered corpses, and has a very effective scene where a car rides over bumps that we learn are people. But the Rwandan genocide involved hatcheting people to death, by hundreds and thousands. Film critics agreed the filmmakers chose wisely to refrain from such graphic imagery. Blood Diamond had a brief exposition of chopping off of hands, but the rest of the picture showed splays of machine gun fire and explosions. I can attest, having been in Sierra Leone during the war’s beginning , that guns were plentiful, but not bullets. Children were not given license to waste Rambo-scale rounds of ammunition. The worst violence was again by machete, and again it occurs off camera. In Last King of Scotland, Amin’s atrocities are barely shown. Instead we remain as ignorant as the foolish doctor, getting information from newspaper images he reads.
In all three cases, the films spare audiences from graphic recreations of the actual atrocities. The is rather unusual, since other big-budget movies have no scruples about such displays. Uber-violence is Hollywood’s idea of freedom of expression. Perhaps it takes a special kind of producer/director team to make an African movie, who are temperamentally uninclined to recreate atrocities. Or maybe not. If presented with wide-screen recreations of hundreds of innocents hacked to death in gruesome realistic detail, the audience might “mistakenly” conclude that Africans, by themselves, are capable of epic brutality that stamps history for millennia.
This contrasts sharply with another virtue of many German films like The Lives of Others (or The Harmonists, which we also saw recently): The German films don’t blame everything on the Russians, or the French, or the Brits, or the Americans. They acknowledge that many—if not most—people in East Germany (or Nazi Germany) were complicit to some degree or another.