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Friday, June 30, 2023

June 30, 2023: Germany and America: The Lives of Others

[On June 26th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin. That was just one of many interesting moments that brought the two nations together, so for the speech’s 60th anniversary I’ll AmericanStudy it and other German-American histories!]

[Some SPOILERS in what follows, so if you haven’t seen The Lives of Others yet, go watch it first then come on back!]

On what’s unquestionably distinct about the stunning East German historical drama, and two ways it can still apply to AmericanStudying.

Despite the numerous and important Nazi and American connections I highlighted in yesterday’s post, I do still believe that there’s some validity to Godwin’s Law, the idea that eventually all internet debates feature unnecessary and fraught comparisons to the Holocaust. That genocidal horror was its own thing, and we can and should discuss our own horrors without trying to force them into parallels with it. On a somewhat lesser but still horrific scale, the same should hold for the histories of Stasi surveillance and torture that are the heart of the truly amazing 21st century German film The Lives of Others (2006). Both those histories and the film’s depictions of them (through mostly fictional but deeply realistic characters and plotlines) are specific, require their own understandings and analysis, and don’t deserve to be reduced to a comparative lens for American histories or issues (nor vice versa). The fact that the film’s lead actor (Ulrich Mühe) had extensive personal experience with those East German histories (and was tragically affected by them, as that hyperlinked obituary makes clear) only amplifies the importance of engaging with them on their own terms.

These things are never either-or, however, and we can do that specific engagement yet still think about what a great work of art can help us see and analyze in our own society, histories, issues, identities, and more. In the case of The Lives of Others, one very obvious and very important such American lesson has to do with how easily and destructively we can let the worst of us become our most powerful figures. Toward the end of the film, one of its heroes, the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), says to its most buffoonish yet most evil villain, Culture Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), “To think that people like you once ruled a country.” It’s difficult to remember back to those halcyon days of 2006 (or whatever year it was when I first got to see this film), but I imagine I thought that the U.S. was fortunate not to have been ruled by cartoonishly (yet all too realistically) evil buffoons like Hempf. And then we went and elected president a man who makes Hempf look like Abraham Lincoln by comparison. The truth is, there’s some part of us—and I mean both a portion of our populace but also a layer to our collective consciousness—that seems to want leaders who represent the very worst of our identities, impulses, ids. We unfortunately don’t need films to show us what happens when we make such figures our leaders, but it doesn’t hurt to have further painful reminders.

That’s one of many depressing layers to this important film. But (without getting into specific spoilers) The Lives of Others is ultimately one of the most moving and inspiring stories I’ve ever encountered, in any medium. A great deal of that is due to its portrayal of what happens when people are able to truly empathize and connect with one another, despite the mechanisms and systems of oppression and prejudice and division and hate that can too often get in the way. But it’s also due to a historical reality that the film’s conclusion features, and about which I wrote in this post: that not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the East German regime, Berlin opened the amazing Stasi Museum, “a place” (as I wrote in that post) “where Germans and visitors alike can engage with and seek to understand one of the darkest eras in that nation’s history.” Since 2006 America has finally, finally begun to construct such places ourselves, with the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice a particularly stunning example. But we’ve got so far to go to truly remember our hardest histories, and seem these days to be regressing instead—so we can still learn a lot from The Lives of Others and the German histories, hardest and most inspiring, it depicts.

June Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think? German-American contexts you’d highlight?

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