Physical Dramaturgy: Ein (neuer) Trend?

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The ghosts are leaving the shadows

"The Life of Others" is a film about the Stasi's "people corrosion" operations, by a young Wessi director who never experienced the misery of the GDR. Former dissident Wolf Biermann is astounded by how convincing it is.

There are increasing numbers of West people in Germany who dilettantishly play the role of the noble procrastinator. In an argument about the involvement of East people in the crimes of the GDR regime they prefer to opt for the worldly-wise option of holding their tongues. This sort of eloquent silence always sets a twisted Hamlet soliloquy ringing in my ears: "...To be or not to be. ... get involved or better not ... that is the question. Whether t'is nobler in the mind to keep stubbornly quiet about the Stasi troubles of the Ossis, or to dive headlong into a sea of slanging matches.... No! I'm a Wessi. Who has never had to suffer that sort of repression and who has never lived under the weight of a dictatorship. So I won't take an inflated moral stand, I prefer to confess modestly to being one of the little people, with fears and weaknesses. Whether I would have been courageous in the GDR or cowardly, whether I would have gone along with everything or at least cautiously refused, or whether I might even have dared oppose the regime – I cannot say. And this is why I'd rather not judge these things, not to mention judging the people who – who knows – only swam with the tide, or in good faith that they were doing the right thing collaborated with the secret police or simply in ignorance or fear, and with great sadness in their hearts, inflicted misery on others. I'll keep out of all this. I thank providence that I was never forced to denounce, inform on or torture anybody, and I'm very thankful that I never had to find out. Luckily it's all over, its all in the past."

Wolf Biermann (Photo: Hans Weingartz) / Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck (Photo: Andreas Mühe)

You come across this bogus declaration of bankruptcy more and more. But this sort of shabby modesty is nothing but a cowardly flight to what Immanuel Kant called "self-imposed immaturity". Anyone who says: who knows if I would have become a pig, is only issuing themselves a precautionary whitewashing coupon for swinishness. No matter how you might have behaved back in the days of fear and danger, all that matters in the here and now is that you don't deny or play down the wretchedness of others.

Two months ago, I was sitting in the formerly East German Kollwitz Platz in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district with five friends. Marianne Birthler gave us a sneak DVD preview of a film from an young unknown director about the GDR. "The Life of Others". All of us watching the film had opposed the regime, some of us were even its scarred jailbirds. When I read the name of the director, it occurred to me that this Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (bio) had sent me the draft script for his film about the GDR secret police (Stasi) two years or so ago. At the time I had flicked through it irritably. I wanted nothing to do with a project like this. I was convinced that this novice, this naive upper-class kid who had been graced with being born so late in the West would never, ever be capable of tackling this sort of GDR material, either politically or artistically.

When we'd finished watching the film after a good two hours, I was astounded, confused, pleasantly disappointed and cautiously enthusiastic. A heated argument ensued. Two of the friends gathered thought the film was full of inaccurate details. A minister of culture could never have had so much influence on the Stasi apparat as the film showed. After all the MfS or Ministry for State Security was strictly and staunchly what it was set up to be and what it wanted to be: "the shield and sword of the party" – no more, no less. A lieutenant colonel in Erich Mielke's company would never ever taken marching orders from some comrade minister! The decisions were always made by the party leadership; the state was only the executive organ. And there was absolutely no way that the Stasi would have been drawn into exercising their powers on the behest of a cultural functionary, just because this flaccid individual had got the elderly hots for some GDR starlet who lived with her ambitious and successful GDR playwright.

And another inaccuracy: the film portrayed the young writer as someone who conformed to the system. But only truly oppositional writers were "operatively handled", informed on, tapped, and followed to that extent. And and and! And young officers of the MfS would never ever have goofed about in plain clothes in their academy lecture hall! These and other details are just plain wrong. And! And! And anyway the film put a soft pedal on the totalitarian reality.

Dramatist Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) are spied on by Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler. Photo: Verleih

I was among those in our friendly circle of experts who considered these fuzzinesses beside the point. The basic story in "The Life of Others" is insane and true and beautiful – by which I mean really very sad. The political tone is authentic, I was moved by the plot. But why? Perhaps I was just won over sentimentally, because of the seductive mass of details which look like they were lifted from my own past between the total ban of my work in 1965 and denaturalisation in 1976. So uncertainty and suspicion linger on: if such Saul-Paul conversions of Stasi officers really did take place, where were similar shining examples after the fall of the Wall? No one explained themselves publicly or privately to me or my "degenerate" friends, still less apologised for a crime, which only the onlookers in the East and West ring seats of the historical boxing ring could waive off blithely...

When I watch this film through the eyes of my dead friend the writer Jürgen Fuchs, of course it rings home that in the Hohenschönhausen remand prison things were a lot more brutal than they are in this film. The mild-tempered Jürgen Fuchs would have had a fit had he been sitting there with us. He would have probably said: "Now the mymidons of the dictatorship are being humanised! GDR life grew more brutal, more grey and more terrible by the day. Are Stasi criminals like Mielke and Markus Wolf being softened in the wash like poor old Adolf in the last days in the Führerbunker under the Reich's chancellery?"

I cannot know whether the wonderful conversion of the Stasi chief is a historical lie or an artistic understatement. We are all addicted to evidence of people's ability to change for the good.

I know that decades ago Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was out to achieve the greatest effect, but it was not in one of his thick books where all the horrifying mass murders and systematic horrors in the Gulag archipelago are truthfully described and listed with encyclopaedic meticulousness.

No, it was in his very first novella: "A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich" that he tried to achieve the strongest effect in the world. Here Solzhenitsyn does nothing more than describe one of the more pleasant days of an ordinary prisoner in an ordinary labour camp in the Stalin era, with no attractive torturing: a refined piece of under-exaggeration. And it was precisely this time-old device that succeeded in breaking down people's inhibitions in East and West about facing unbearable truths. And Solzhenitsyn even managed to reach people in the USSR who knew the blow-by-blow details first-hand, because there too, after the 20th party congress following Khruschev's secret speech about the crimes of the Stalin era, this little book went into print – sadly only for a brief period. However the effect was long-lasting and in a back-to-front way it took effect in the GDR, back-to-front because it was only printed in West German.

But back to our film "The Life of Others". This is the story: a professional people "corroder", a bull-headed "fighter on the invisible front" gets corroded himself. The MfS Captain Gerd Wiesler is a tough cookie but he softens up. He eavesdrops via phone bugs on lovers and then after hours he sneaks back to the "actually existing socialist" tiled coffin of his modern flat and creeps into his empty bed. Another time in his sterile room, he answers the call of nature with a 15 minute rent girl from the MfS sex service. This man is at least as lonely as his victims in solitary confinement and incomparably worse off than the actress and her writer, whom he and his subordinates have to listen in on and shadow round the clock.

Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) doing his work. Photo: Buena Vista

In the attic above the bugged flat he transcribes word for word the discussions and the silences of the intellectuals he is "operatively handling". And he is increasingly seduced by their liveliness. By the end of the story he is ruined for this wretched job as a "people corroder". With a beautiful twist he goes kaputt while professionally making others kaputt and this is the fairytale variation of the "deformation professionelle."

I have similar stories to tell involving two women when I lived at Chauseestraße 131. I lay in the clinch of two brave fighting ladies, who were working in Mielke's service, and who had the special mission of defeating the "songwriter" and people's enemy with erotic weapons, and who then de-conspired and deserted Mielkes erotic brigade.

This film was able to convey things to me that I could never have imagined "being real".

In the ten thousand pages of my Stasi files, I found around 215 (in words: two-hundred-and-fifteen) aliases of a number of unofficial employees, vulgo: "spitzel" or informers. Of course I know many of their faces. The documents are also strewn with the real family names of umpteen official employees, all officers, in other words higher ranking pen pushers, like comrades Reuter and Lohr, in other words characters like those in the film. The art work lends these faceless scoundrels the facial expressions of the actors which I can now read. Lohr and Reuter worked for many years as part of the Central Operative Operation "Poets" on systematically "corroding" me – as the chemical terminus technicus of Stasi jargon phrases it. Two of the twenty or so measures against dissidents stand there, typed in a long list by two Stasi index fingers on the office typewriter: "Destruction of all love relationships and friendships." Another: "faulty medical treatment".

I have never attempted to get personally acquainted with any of these high-ranking criminals since the collapse of the GDR. These ominous apparitions are almost all still alive and they are drawing pensions as civil servants of the reunified Bundesrepublik Deutschland. And its clear that hardly any of these perpetrators has ever forgiven his victims. And what's more these senior lackeys of the GDR who got off the hook so comfortably have certainly never sought out a discussion with the people that they systematically pursued for decades on end.

Certainly, they were somewhat altered as film characters, but for the first time I saw these phantoms as human beings, right down to their inner contradictions. The ghosts are stepping out of the shadows. Sometimes a work of art can have more documentary clout than actual documents, whose truth is doubted both by the perpetrators – of course – and more painfully, by readers of the documents who bore easily."

Captain Wiesler's superior, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz is played by the actor Ulrich Tukur. This strong character actor lends the ideologically encrusted silhouettes in the cave of my mind human features at last, behind which the remains of a face even emerge. And so the cardboard cut-out villains in my life are finally given the experience of real flesh and blood, and I can even make out in each ravaged human countenance the flashing of all the colours in the black and white rainbow.

Stasi commander Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) ovserves as Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) is interrogated. Photo: Buena Vista

Ulrich Tukur rose to fame when 20 or so years back in Peter Zadek's production of Joshua Sobol's "Ghetto" at the Hamburger Schauspielhaus, he gave a brilliantly brutal performance as a young SS man, in other words the more interesting villain. I saw the controversial play back then – all sceptical, eyes squinted together. In a TV feature, Tukur mentioned that he perhaps enjoyed playing difficult, cynical and cruel characters because in his own life he'd never had anything to do with that sort of suffering, conflict or adversity. His private life had so far been without any real catastrophe, or profound desperation or disappointments.

Yeah right! – I thought, Tukur, you philosophical clown, you don't need the experience of being imprisoned in a ghetto. A brilliant actor like you doesn't need a SS father and doesn't need to have been a real Stasi man. An artist so loved by the muse doesn't first have to wade through vile netherworlds and bloodbaths.

I can't get over it that such a west-born directing greenhorn like Donnersmarck and a handful of established actors are able to deliver such an unbelievably realistic genre study of the GDR with what is probably a purely invented story. He didn't go through any of it! And yet a young man like this can have his say! This west boy is obviously quite adequately equipped to judge and even condemn. He can not only have his say, he has something to say. And he doesn't need any whitewashing coupons.

Every life, even the so-called easy, well-protected ones, sharpen the way you look at things. Even a conflict-lite CV provides the most protected child from a good home with everything it needs to know what misery is, what is crooked and what is straight. In the darkest reaches of our hearts, we all know what heartache and bliss means, treachery and cowardice, uprightness and bravery.

Which is why this director succeeded, without the painful lessons of a GDR socialisation, in conveying what it felt like to be subjugated by a Kafkaesque dictatorship. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck shows us what a crazy and complicated mix of good and evil is contained within the human breast, and in what dreadful disarray. The most disconcerting thing about pigs are their human traits. But despite all the complicated complications in human affairs, what father God said in the Bible to all his earthly children still holds:

"Let your yes be yes and your no be no."

In the past, my ass! We obviously carry this deep in our soul-genes: nothing is really completely over. And nothing is all in the past.

A lot of people in both East and West are sick to the teeth of the discussions about the Stasi and the GDR dictatorship, and between you and me: I'm just the same. After my Stasi ballads from 1966, my lampoons of the corrupt old men in the politburo and my polemical essays after the fall of the GDR, I don't need any more. But I don't trust myself on this issue. This debut film makes me suspect that the truly deep-reaching confrontation with Germany's second dictatorship is only just beginning.

And perhaps those who never experienced all the misery should take over now.


The article originally appeared in Die Welt on March 22, 2006

The poet, songwriter and essayist Wolf Biermann was born in 1936 to Jewish communist working class family in Hamburg. In 1953 he chose to move to the GDR,where as a staunch communist he became one of the regime's fierce critics. In 1976 he was denaturalised and has since lived in Hamburg.

Translation: lp

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