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Totalitarianism on Screen

Totalitarianism on Screen: The Art and Politics of The Lives of Others

Carl Eric Scott
F. Flagg Taylor
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 276
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  • Book Info
    Totalitarianism on Screen
    Book Description:

    From its creation in 1950, to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the German Democratic Republic's Ministry for State Security closely monitored its nation's citizens. Known as the Staatssicherheit or Stasi, this organization was regarded as one of the most repressive intelligence agencies in the world. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's 2006 film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) has received international acclaim -- including an Academy Award, an Independent Spirit Award, and multiple German Film Awards -- for its moving portrayal of East German life under the pervasive surveillance of the Stasi.

    In Totalitarianism on Screen, political theorists Carl Eric Scott and F. Flagg Taylor IV assemble top scholars to analyze the film from philosophical and political perspectives. Their essays confront the nature and legacy of East Germany's totalitarian government and outline the reasons why such regimes endure.

    Other than magazine and newspaper reviews, little has been written about The Lives of Others. This volume brings German scholarship on the topic to an English-speaking audience for the first time and explores the issue of government surveillance at a time when the subject is often front-page news. Featuring contributions from German president Joachim Gauck, prominent singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, journalists Paul Hockenos and Lauren Weiner, and noted scholars Paul Cantor and James Pontuso, Totalitarianism on Screen contributes to the growing scholarship on totalitarianism and will interest historians, political theorists, philosophers, and fans of the film.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4499-3
    Subjects: Political Science, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)
    Carl Eric Scott and F. Flagg Taylor IV

    “Don’t I need this whole system? What about you? Then you don’t need it either. Or need it even less. But you get into bed with them too. Why do you do it? Because they can destroy you too, despite your talent and your faith. Because they decide what we play, who is to act, who can direct.”

    These are the words of Christa-Maria Sieland, actress and girlfriend of writer Georg Dreyman, East Germany’s most celebrated playwright. She is being blackmailed by the minister of cultural affairs: sexual favors in exchange for permission to continue her work on the East...

  4. Part 1. Truth and Dissent

    • 1 Post-totalitarianism in The Lives of Others
      (pp. 19-34)
      F. Flagg Taylor IV

      In this essay I will argue that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’sThe Lives of Othersprovides viewers with a striking and deep portrait of a “posttotalitarian” regime. Its depiction of totalitarian tyranny succeeds in particular at revealing the nature and function of ideology and the manner in which one might escape its snares. Its success in this depiction is important for our broader reflection on the nature of totalitarian tyranny.

      The concept of totalitarianism has come under criticism for many reasons, and there remains much debate about the regimes that might fall into this category. Hannah Arendt’s depiction in her...

    • 2 What Is a Dissident? The Travails of the Intellectuals in The Lives of Others
      (pp. 35-54)
      Lauren Weiner

      During the Soviet era, intellectuals behind the Iron Curtain walked a fine line. We in the West admired those who, like Anna Akhmatova and Vasily Grossman, snatched a measure of liberty by writing “for the desk drawer” (not for publication)¹ or by seeing their work passed from hand to hand insamizdat(underground copies) or those who, like Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, smuggled manuscripts abroad for publication. Viewing the situation from the outside, we tended to consider it a simple matter of rebelling or not rebelling. Often it was not simple. The cultural commissars of the Eastern bloc meted...

  5. Part 2. Art and Politics

    • 3 Communist Moral Corruption and the Redemptive Power of Art
      (pp. 57-82)
      Carl Eric Scott

      The Lives of Others,written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is a masterpiece of filmmaking that shows how pervasively the German Democratic Republic, through its secret police the Stasi, spied upon its own citizens. The film tells the story of the partial moral redemption of a dedicated Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler, through his unexpected encounter of artistic beauty in the lives of two artists he has been assigned to monitor, the playwright Georg Dreyman and his lover, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland. Through his audio surveillance of Dreyman’s apartment, Wiesler becomes intrigued by the friendship, love, and artistry he...

    • 4 Long Day’s Journey into Brecht: The Ambivalent Politics of The Lives of Others
      (pp. 83-110)
      Paul A. Cantor

      Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 filmDas Leben der Anderen(The Lives of Others) was widely, and justifiably, praised as a cinematic masterpiece almost from its first release. The movie was especially celebrated as a political statement, as a scathing indictment of communist tyranny, specifically a long overdue exposé of the horrors of the East German regime, the so-called Deutsche Demokratische Republik (the DDR, the German Democratic Republic). Surprisingly, untilThe Lives of Others,no German film had attempted to portray the brutal nature of the communist regime in East Germany. If anything, by the early twenty-first century, a sort...

    • 5 The Tragic Ambiguity, or Ambiguous Tragedy, of Christa-Maria Sieland
      (pp. 111-134)
      Dirk R. Johnson

      To the question of whatThe Lives of Others is about,one might answer it is about the oppressiveness of totalitarian societies that monitor and control their citizens’ lives and careers. In fact, whileThe Livesseems to be about the machinery of surveillance in one totalitarian society in particular—that of the state secret police, or Stasi, in the former East Germany—it reflects the entire spectrum of totalitarian states that have cast their shadow over Europe’s “long twentieth century.”¹ Indeed, it does not take a great leap of imagination to envision similar scenarios in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy,...

  6. Part 3. The Lives of Others and Other Films

    • 6 The Lives of Others, Good Bye Lenin! and the Power of Everydayness
      (pp. 137-154)
      James F. Pontuso

      At first viewing,The Lives of OthersandGood Bye Lenin!could not be more different.Good Bye Lenin!is a fanciful, lighthearted, and sometimes poignant journey into a world lost forever as the result of the collapse of communism.The Lives of Othersis a realistic and chilling account of the lengths to which the ruling Communist Party went to keep that world from failing. AlthoughThe Lives of Othershighlights the dark and menacing side of tyranny, both it andGood Bye Lenin!reveal a striking feature of post-totalitarian regimes—the Communist Party’s dependence on “everydayness” as a...

    • 7 On the Impossibility of Withdrawal: Life in the Gray Zone
      (pp. 155-168)
      Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz

      Among the Polish writer Sławomir Mrożek’s delightful fables there is one entitled “The Lion.” The scene is a Roman amphitheater where the Roman citizens as well as the emperor are watching an entertainment. I retell it here in abbreviated form.

      A group of Christians is huddling at the center of the arena. A roaring group of lions emerges from the tunnel. Gayus, the keeper of the lions, is checking whether all the beasts have come into the arena when he notices one lion has stopped at the entrance and is calmly chewing a carrot. Gayus prods him with his long...

    • 8 Fiction or Lived History? On the Question of the Credibility of The Lives of Others
      (pp. 171-182)
      Manfred Wilke

      The attempt to show the mechanisms of communist dictatorship from the perspective of a Stasi officer went against the standard victim-perpetrator debates held in Germany after 1990 on the question of membership in the Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or MfS). East German society’s self-liberation from the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or SED) and its most important instrument of repression in the peaceful revolution of 1989 went hand in hand with moral condemnation of that organization. It became a matter of justice and of German democracy’s political morality to rehabilitate the victims of the...

    • 9 The Ghosts Are Leaving the Shadows:
      (pp. 183-188)
      Wolf Biermann

      There are increasing numbers of West people in Germany who dilettantishly play the role of the noble procrastinator. In an argument about the involvement of East people in the crimes of the GDR regime, they prefer to opt out for the worldly-wise option of holding their tongues. This sort of eloquent silence always sets a twisted Hamlet soliloquy ringing in my ears:

      To be or not to be . . . No . . . to get involved or better not . . . that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to keep stubbornly quiet about the...

    • 10 Against Forgetting: A Conversation with Joachim Gauck
      (pp. 189-202)
      Paul Hockenos and Joachim Gauck

      Paul Hockenos: When did you first seeThe Lives of Othersand what was your initial reaction?

      Joachim Gauck: I saw the film before it opened to the public since I was asked to write a review for the German magazineStern.I was greatly impressed from the get-go, not least because the film had an incredible cast, from the lead roles all the way to the smaller supporting roles. Donners-marck succeeded brilliantly in inspiring this cast, which included some of Germany’s most famous actors and actresses. But above all I was moved by the atmosphere of fear that it...

    • 11 East German Totalitarianism: A Warning from History
      (pp. 203-228)
      Peter Grieder

      The Lives of Othersis not a documentary but a movie. The purpose of a movie is to entertain rather than to inform. So why debate its historical accuracy? Because its screenwriter and director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, claims that the film is fundamentally authentic.¹ His “close historical consultant,” the renowned historian Manfred Wilke, vigorously defends its historical credibility in this volume and elsewhere.² Furthermore, the Oscar-winning blockbuster succeeded in renewing the debate about life in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), also known as East Germany, to which historians are particularly well qualified to contribute. Many ordinary people imbibe...

  7. Part 5. The Stasi in the GDR

    • 12 The Stasi: An Overview
      (pp. 231-256)
      Jens Gieseke

      The inner security apparatus in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was divided into two ministries: the Ministry of the Interior (MdI), with the German People’s Police (Deutsche Volkspolizei—DVP) as the regular, “public” police force, and the Ministry for State Security (MfS) as the political secret police and intelligence service. For a brief period, from July 1953 to November 1955, State Security was formally subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior in the form of a permanent secretary’s office, though in reality it was always independent. This contribution deals systematically only with the Ministry for State Security as the core...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 257-258)
  9. List of Contributors
    (pp. 259-262)
  10. Index
    (pp. 263-268)