My first motivation to see The Lives of Others was that I heard that William F. Buckley, Jr. said it was the best movie he had ever seen. Presumably, Buckley liked it at least partially because it is a compellingly anti-Communist film, and opposition to Communism was a large part of the 20th century American conservatism he spent his life cherishing and defending. But Buckley was no cretin either – he was educated and thoughtful, and had enough aesthetic sensibility to know a good movie from a bad one.
The Lives of Others is a German film, released in 2006 but taking place in Communist East Germany decades before. Its central character is Gerd, a fiercely loyal and highly effective member of the East German secret police. Gerd has a keen instinct for whether someone is a loyal Communist as well as a talent for interrogating (torturing) suspects and coercing confessions and evidence from them. He is assigned to spy on Georg, a playwright who is suspected of being a closet dissident. His spying includes secretly spending many hours each day in the attic of Georg’s apartment building, listening to the audio from Georg’s bugged apartment and transcribing every detail of what is said and done therein.
Georg is a pragmatist who tries to maintain good relations with the Communist government so that he can write his plays more or less unmolested. But when one of his good friends, a theatre director, hangs himself because he had been blacklisted by the state, Georg decides to take a stand. He writes an article for a West German magazine, sharply criticizing the East German government and its callousness and abuses. This article attracts the attention of the authorities, and they begin to strongly suspect that Georg is behind it.
Gerd, who has been spying on Georg this whole time, knows that Georg is the author of the article. A loyal Communist would turn Georg in and ensure that he was properly punished for his dissidence. However, in the course of spying on Georg, something remarkable has happened to Gerd. He has examined Georg’s life closely enough to see that it is rich, filled with complex but rewarding personal relationships, with the struggles and triumphs of an artist, with passion, kindness, hate, love, forgiveness, and longing.
Gerd realizes that his own life is sterile and unrewarding by comparison. In one scene, we see Gerd’s apartment, and it looks more or less like a hotel, with no sign of personality or the chaos of human life. Gerd orders the services of a prostitute, who implies that she has many regular clients among Gerd’s group of secret policemen. They are voyeurs, peering into the lives of others despite, or perhaps because of, having no inner lives of their own. When Gerd decides not to turn in Georg, he is taking a part of his life and self that used to be dedicated solely to the state, and replacing it with his own individual will, as well as his care and concern for a man he had come to consider a friend. Gerd creates an inner life for himself where there had been none before.
Gerd’s transformation underscores a point that has been important to conservatives ever since Edmund Burke: that the lives and relationships of individual humans are infinitely more valuable than the abstract aims of the state. The East German state, like Gerd, desired order, loyalty, and uniform equality. These are not unworthy aims on their own, but in the course of the movie, we see how the State, in its pursuit of these abstract aims, tears apart relationships and ruins lives. The particular (individual people and their relationships) has been sacrificed for the sake of the universal (abstract notions of order and loyalty). Conservatism rightly understood has always aimed to put the particularities of human life above the potentially soul-crushing generalities of the state, and this movie provides a viscerally compelling case for why this should be so.
There is so much more to the movie that cannot be captured in a brief review. There is love, betrayal, regret, assault, suicide, conspiracy, and delicate political maneuvering. It is a fascinating story and evidently has been praised as highly accurate by people who lived through that era. Its conservative message pleased Buckley, but (importantly) it does not need be watched through strictly ideological lenses. Many conservative and liberal filmmakers have attempted to convey political messages in films, only to end up with unwatchable, heavy-handed hackery. Sort of like Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell the truth but tell it slant,” ideological messages are best conveyed when it seems like no one is attempting to convey them at all. The Lives of Others manages to advance conservative ideas artfully without descending into ham-fisted polemic.
If I could change one thing about the movie, I would change Georg’s profession, and that of his friends and associates. They are elite, successful, high-culture-style artists, which is a good thing on its own, but I believe it dilutes the power of the movie’s anti-statist message. Several times in the film, Georg and especially his girlfriend express a desire to be free solely so that they can practice their high art. They say and imply that art and high culture are so important that they are willing to make great sacrifices for them, and that life would be scarcely worth living without them. Gerd, a cynic might surmise, had never been moved by spying on “normal” people, but was transformed by spying on artists, presumably because they alone had the rich inner life that could move and improve Gerd’s soul.
Art is certainly important and wonderful, and for a talented artist, can make life truly worth living. That I do not dispute. But the implication would seem to be that jackboot Communism is an acceptable form of government for non-artists, since they have nothing too important to use their freedom for, and nothing transcendent for which to make sacrifices. But individual freedom is important for everyone, from the elites of the high culture to the least artistically gifted manual laborer. I think the movie would have been more powerful if Gerd had been spying on a “normal” person, not an artist. Rather than showing us how important art is, the movie would then have focused solely on how important life is. The freedom to drive a truck or lay bricks, if that is the desire of one’s soul, is just as important as the freedom to paint a painting or write plays. Freedom is not snobby in that sense; it is a common good for the common man. The movie missed the opportunity to point this out, but it succeeded in nearly every other respect.