Thursday 18 August 2011

Sonata of a Good Man

It’s fifty years since construction began on the Berlin Wall in August, 1961, dividing a city, dividing families, dividing lives. Built by the government of the then German Democratic Republic, it was described absurdly as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall”, when it should really have been called the “We Have to Keep our Miserable Citizens in Wall.”

It stood for so long as the ultimate symbol of the abject failure of communism. I have no great opinion of John F. Kennedy, but his Berlin speech summed up the situation with poetic intensity;

There are many people in the world who really don't understand--or say they don't--what is the greatest issue between the free world and Communist world. Let them come to Berlin!

There are some who say that "communism is the wave of the future." Let them come to Berlin!

And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere, "we can work with the Communists." Let them come to Berlin!

And there are even a few who say "yes, that it's true, that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress." Lass' sie nach Berlin en kommen! Let them come to Berlin!

Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us!

No, we did not.

It was the Wall I was thinking about recently, not just the physical wall but the wall that states like the GDR constructed in the minds of people, a wall of secret and lies intended to hide hypocrisy and corruption. I saw Das Leben der Anderen – The Lives of Others – when it was first released in 2006, before I started this blog. I decided to revisit it recently on DVD on this anniversary year.

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, the movie tells the story of a Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an idealist, a patriot, a believer…and an officer in the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police. He is assigned to spy on one Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a playwright, one of the state’s cultural icons. Why? Well the simple secret policeman finds out the secret: it’s because the Minister of Culture (Thomas Theime) wants to get his fat paws on Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), and it would be ever so helpful if the inconvenient artist could be removed from the equation.

Bit by bit, in the course of his surveillance of Dreyman, a sordid reality chips away at Wiesler’s idealism, as the system is exposed in all its corruption, the corruption not just of the politician but also of his immediate superior in the Stasi, who would destroy a man’s life simply to advance his own career.

His disillusion is matched by that of Dreyman, hitherto a committed Communist, who sees a colleague, blacklisted by the state, driven to suicide. The two men, unbeknown to Dreyman, enter into a silent collaboration, with the policeman acting less as a spy and more as a protector, deliberately sabotaging the investigation and hiding evidence of the playwright’s exposure of suicide rates in the GDR in an article published anonymously in the West. As a consequence his own career is ruined.

Fast forward to the new united Germany. The ex-Stasi agent is now working as a postman. Dreyman, now a novelist, discovers that he had been placed under surveillance. Not just that but a case could never be made against him because he had his own guardian angel, HGW XX/7, Wiesler’s Stasi code, which he finds in archives now open to the public. The novel he then writes, Sonate vom Guten Menschen, carries a simple dedication: To HGW XX/7 with gratitude.

It’s a tremendous piece of cinema, a simple and moving story, proof that lies have a lease as short as summer, that goodness and virtue can survive even the worst forms of criminal turpitude.


  1. I have long wondered at the irony of post-war eastern Europe, how the evil of Nazi occupation was replaced by the evil of communist tyranny. I have wondered how much of the Western Allies' decision not to go to war was based on the treasonous lies of communist agents embedded in our several governments. Senator Joe McCarthy wasn't crying "Wolf!"

    Thirty years on, though we knew from our own observations that the USSR was an economic disaster, still, the attempted coup against Gorbachev and the sudden collapse that followed was shocking to those of us who had lived with the Iron Curtain through the Hungarian Uprising, the Berlin Wall, the Prague Spring (and Autumn), and Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

    I have heard the GDR had more than 100,000 agents in West Germany, as well as the vast internal spy network. Think of that: an entire nation devoted to espionage. How long before that shadow of paranoia fades from those who lived it?

    Mikhail made a speech this week, defending his premiership, and criticizing Putin by inference. He claims that, but for the destabilizing effect of the coup attempt against him, the USSR would still exist. Imagine that! So many Russians miss their tyranny. JFK proclaimed it was worth any price to keep the Bear at bay. He was right.

  2. This is a good movie, I have seen it but who brought down the Reich and spread communism all over the world? The same lot who have now brought multiculturalism to the West. Hitler spoke the truth.

  3. This looks good. I look forward to watching it in its entirety. A good history of communism in the 20th Century by a former Red is: Politics of Bad Faith by David Horowitz (Free Press). I highly recommend it. He gives the reader much valuable info. re. the worldwide communist conspiracy, incl. the DDR and Euro Bolsheviks. Might be of interest to you and your readers.

  4. A great film indeed Ana, and one which captures the atmosphere of living under surveillance. Is idealism a defence against reality or a refusal to adjust to it.

  5. Calvin, do you have a link to that speech? I'll try a Google hunt. So far as poor old Gorby is concerned I wrote a piece some time ago called The Woes of Lemonade Joe. If you want to read it just type that title into the Lijit search box on the left. Thinking of Ostalgie, did you know that there are themed hotels in Germany based on Stasi prisons? Just imagine the complaints: that bed wasn't hard enough; the food was too tasty. :-)) I absolutely agree about McCarthy and, in this area, if few others, Kennedy was right, if only he had followed through without reservation. Sadly he let people down at the Bay of Pigs.

  6. Anthony, we've had this argument before. It was Hitler's precipitate invasion of the Soviet Union that brought communism creeping in to the heart of Europe.

  7. BNA, on your recommendation I'm adding that book to my 'to buy' list. I'll add a review as soon as I've read it.

  8. Richard, quite. Have you seen Goodbye Lenin also? I enjoyed that too.

  9. Ana, Gorby's speech was mentioned in a report I heard on Public Radio here while driving. You might search on I'll see if I can track it down.

  10. Martina Gedeck is a very good reason to watch this film.