Rarely do I watch a film that not only captivates me from start to end but makes me want to write about the experience as soon as it finishes. The Lives of Others is a rare film which has had a strong and immediate impact on me.
When I was growing up, East Germany was something there in the background, conjuring up images of the Berlin Wall, with watch-towers housing uniformed soldiers who shot and killed those trying to escape across the border. It was part of my media landscape on the TV news and part of my ideological questioning about what the hell socialism actually was in comparison to what the Eastern Bloc had become.
In November 1989, I’d just returned to my home town of Glasgow after travelling around Europe with my violin, busking on the streets of Amsterdam, Paris, Montpellier, Florence, Bern, but never reaching Germany. In November 1989, I watched the TV news in Glasgow in amazement as the Berlin Wall was dismantled and destroyed. I’m shaking my head as I remember this because it was such an unbelievable sight which did, quite literally, usher in a new era of Gorbachev, Glasnost, and a few months later, the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment. There was a real sense of optimism and hope for the impossible, the undreamed of, and the aspirations yet to be fulfilled.
I now live in Malta. As well as writing and acting, one of the ways I earn my living is through teaching English as a foreign language and this brings me into contact with so many lives of so many others and on a daily basis. It’s a privilege to meet these people and to share our lives. It gives me a whole new and intensely personal perspective on the people who lived – and live – through the same history as me, but from the other side of the camera, or the other side of the wall.
This was the reason I actually watched The Lives of Others. Recently, I taught a class with 2 students who grew up in East Germany and they recommended the film to me. One woman, slightly older than me, talked of how when you were in a group of 9 people, you knew 1 of them was a spy. You didn’t know which one but you knew that one of them was. The other was a man who celebrated his 18th birthday the day after the Berlin Wall came down, and I thought of all those lives being lived out while I was watching the news in Glasgow in 1989.
I cried as I watched this film. I cried to watch the story of a ‘Good Man’ who was working for the Stasi but, moved by the lives of the artists under his surveillance, he began to alter the evidence in order to save them being caught. It is the story of one good man in a system based on corruption, deception, suspicion and betrayal, a system in which, as one of my East German students told me from her own experience, your neighbours could be working as informers.
This film triggered several things in me. It reminded me of my own personal history; of where my life has been, where it is now, and all the unforeseen interconnections along the way. It reminded me of my political beliefs; of what I think is worth fighting for and the kind of world I want to live and breathe in. It reminded me, as so many times I’m reminded by the people I meet through teaching the English language, that, as human beings, we do live in circumstances not of our own making and in the shadow of overarching political and economic forces that shape, and sometimes determine, the choices we can make and the nature of the choices available to us. But what I witness – and what I feel so privileged to witness – is the strength and resilience among my fellow human beings as they, or we, live out our lives. What I witness – and as a tangible reality – is the basic humanity underlying our encounters, and how this brings together people from diverse cultural backgrounds, with different religious beliefs, and such a vast range of experiences of the shared world in which we live.
Brecht is mentioned in The Lives of Others and his insistence that history is about the lives of the ordinary people seems acutely pertinent. There are global forces at work intent on bringing about destruction but these destructive tendencies don’t emanate from the people whose lives are played out in the spaces in between. And I’ve met thousands of people during the 9 years since I started teaching, including Libyans visibly traumatised by their own recent war. With the exception of a handful, the overwhelming majority of these people can quite happily sit and talk together in a small classroom, discussing different issues without voices being raised.
This never fails to impress me deeply and it sustains my optimism within this 21st-century climate whose overall political outlook is exceptionally bleak. We’re confronted by the absurdity of the powers-that-be scrambling to build walls and create division. We have the egomania of Donald Trump and his crazy vision for the Mexican border. We have Brexit and the triggering of Article 50, an action that seemed to arise from its own volition rather than any semblance of rationality. We have attempts to perpetrate divisiveness rather than foster humanitarian ways of living through that vital acknowledgement of our similarities.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom were not symbolic gestures. They were actions promoting more humane and egalitarian ways to live. The Lives of Others places altruism at the forefront. Early on, a member of the Stasi insists that people don’t change. Throughout this film, we see they can and that they do.