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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 April 2006, 17:34 GMT 18:34 UK
Stasi film breaks with nostalgia

By Ray Furlong
BBC correspondent in Berlin

Screen shot from The Life Of The Others
The film shows how the Stasi invaded people's privacy
A grown man is reduced to tears after 50 hours of relentless questioning by the East German secret police, the Stasi, as he finally breaks down and reveals the identity of his accomplice.

This is one of the opening scenes of The Life Of The Others, a new film that shows the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) in a much grimmer light than the comedies about the communist East that filled cinemas in recent years.

The film tells the story of a plot by the Stasi to discredit a playwright, ending in both the death of his lover and the end of his career.

Film critics and political commentators in Germany see the film as evidence that nostalgia for the communist era is finally being replaced by a more realistic view.

"The best film about the GDR since reunification," said the weekly Die Zeit, "a cinematic novel which provides depressing insights into the workings of the dictatorship".

The final result is absolutely correct. It has the atmosphere. This is what the dictatorship looked like
Actor Ulrich Muehe

"Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there have been various attempts to portray the everyday life of this police state," said the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

"But The Life Of The Others is the first film that puts the work of the Stasi at the centre of its plot. This is not just the revelation of a theme; this is the revelation of the GDR itself."

The reaction has perhaps more to do with the treatment that the GDR has received in previous films, such as Sonnenallee and Goodbye, Lenin! which tended to bathe East Germany in a warm glow of sentimentality.


Over the last 15 years, the word Ostalgie - meaning nostalgia for the former "Ost" (East) - has been used to describe a phenomenon that has also spawned TV shows and created a market for souvenirs ranging from T-shirts to "communist" champagne.

Screenshot from The Life Of The Others
Many Germans agree that this is a realistic portrayal of the Stasi
"The comedy films about this topic have outlived themselves," says the film's director Florian von Henckel. "People are now more willing to hear more serious and earnest aspects about all this."

Von Henckel worked for eight years on the project, his debut film, rejecting suggestions that he make a comedy too.

"We took the film on tour with the actors through 20 towns in the East, and it was amazing to see the emotional reactions of people who said: 'Yes, this is what lived through'."

The film certainly shows a system that is both corrupt and corrupting.

The playwright refuses to take a principled stand against the regime, preferring to keep his mouth shut so that he can continue to work.

Later, he changes his mind. But the plot against him has already been launched for entirely different reasons - when the culture minister takes a fancy to his girlfriend.

Bags containing shredded Stasi documents
Vast piles of Stasi documents were found after reunification
She later betrays the playwright to save her career, before apparently committing suicide.

Changing sides

The German media have seized on the fact that Ulrich Muehe, who plays a Stasi agent, was in real life spied on by his wife for the Stasi. He refuses to discuss the subject - but says the film is an utterly realistic picture of East Germany.

"Of course there was also sunshine in the GDR. The streets were not as empty as in the film - there were a few more cars. But in the sense of a piece of drama this is legitimate poetic licence.

"The final result is absolutely correct. It has the atmosphere. This is what the dictatorship looked like."

Muehe's character is stricken by doubts and decides to help the playwright. But this, for some, is the film's weak point.

"We know of no member of the East German secret police who changed sides," says Hubertus Knaabe, head of the memorial at the former Stasi prison in Berlin.

Mr Knaabe refused permission to film scenes at the prison, because of the plot. However, he also agrees that the film marks an important departure from previous cinematographic portrayals of the GDR.

"This film shows the work of the Stasi very clearly, and I think it's the first film which presents the communist dictatorship in East Germany in such a clear way."

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