Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lives of others, indeed

Intelligent Discontent (see Update below) also takes note of National Review's list of the top 25 conservative movies. The list has drawn its share of derision around the blogosphere (how could "Birth of a Nation" have been left off?) but both Intelligent Discontent and I are struck by the inclusion of "The Lives of Others," the 2007 German movie that won an Oscar for best foreign-language film.

Like Intelligent Discontent (and William F. Buckley, apparently) I think it's a terrific movie. Because of my interest in German, I have seen it a half-dozen times, in whole or in part. But it never occurred to me to think of it as a conservative movie.

The playwright at its center, for example, is perfectly content to play along with the East German regime, writing bloated historical dramas that praise the glories of socialism. Only when a friend with more political courage than he has commits suicide does he commit a "disloyal" act, and even then he acts with great caution, by publishing an anonymous article in the notoriously liberal West German Stern magazine (you should read what Stern had to say about Bush).

The East German intelligence agent who shadows him is as straight a Communist arrow as humanity could devise ("Socialism has to begin somewhere," he says when he leads his supervisor to sit for lunch with him among the common workers). His doubts about the regime arise because of the corruption he witnesses, not because he disagrees with Communist ideology. Once he does start to doubt, well, pretty soon he's reading that Marxist ideologue Bertolt Brecht.

If anything, the movie shows how absurd it is to apply American notions of liberalism and conservatism to East Germany. For all its Marxism, East Germany was profoundly conservative in its structure and social mores. The playwright was a liberal at heart, doing his best to get by in a society that rejected liberal values. The agent was a conservative at heart, finding it increasingly impossible to match his traditional values to the job he was being told to do.

What makes the movie wonderful is not its politics but the way it depicts the Stasi agent's gradual change of heart: utterly without sentimentality, almost without emotion, but moving and fully persuasive. It's art, folks, not politics.


Jay Stevens said...

Well said.

This is a topic and interest we have in common, but have yet to acknowledge. I majored in German during my undergraduate days (along with History), and lived a couple of years in Germany -- from 89 to 91, including a semester in Jena after the revolution, but before East Germany was united with West. So I experienced the DDR, albeit defanged, first-hand. (I bought a Trabant for 150 DM and took a seminar called "Stalinismus und anti-Stalinismus in der Deutsche Arbeiter Bewegung in der fruehige zwanstige Jahrhundert.") As you've noted, to try to overlay the political factions and societal movements over ours is pure folly.

But then to try to force a modern conservative interpretation to works of art is also patently ridiculous.

Jason said...

Perhaps it's a "conservative film" because it features domestic spying?