An early Torpedo 18, the typewriter of choice for East German playwright Georg Dreyman before he acquired a Groma Kolibri in the movie The Lives of Others.
Housebound by blistering heat (111+ degrees, 44 Celsius) and a dense shroud of suffocating bushfire smoke, we have found some brief hiatus in watching DVDs of old movies. First up was the German language The Lives of Others, which I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, since it first appeared on cinema screens. Back then I suspect I was so engrossed by the appearance of the little green Groma Kolibri portable typewriter with a red ribbon – which I had considered to be the true star of the movie - that I missed many of the nuances in this brilliant work of art from Florian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck. Now, having watched it again and taken in much more of its rich texture, I’ve been looking at reviews which had appeared in 2007. My favourite movie reviewer is Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, and I thought this line of Lane’s - from “Guilty Parties” in the February 12, 2007 issue - especially topical and telling: “This [obligation to write about the terrible suicide rate in East Germany] means smuggling in an untraceable typewriter - more lethal than a gun, in the land of a controlled press - and smuggling out the copy.”
Some critics had apparently not appreciated the “humanisation” of one of the two lead characters, Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe). But with the benefit of my much later viewing – the viewing, I might add, of a far calmer, more congenial viewer – I found myself agreeing utterly with Lane’s appraisal: “One of the marvels of Ulrich Mühe’s performance - in its seething stillness, its quality not just of self-denial but of self-haunting - is that he never distills Wiesler into a creature purely of his times. You can imagine him, with his close-cropped hair, as a young Lutheran in the wildfire of the early Reformation, or as a lost soul finding a new cause in the Berlin of 1933.” With 2020 hindsight, it's clear that one could also see Wiesler as a fundamentally decent man in these troubled times, increasingly compelled to resist the forces of blatant political corruption, bastardry and malice.
Not much has changed in 13 years - perhaps in a unified Germany, but certainly not in the Ukraine and not in the US of A. As Lane went on, “See [Wiesler] crouched in a loft above [Georg] Dreyman’s home with a typewriter, a tape deck, and headphones clamped to his skull. Watch the nothingness on his face as he taps out his report on the couple’s actions … Slowly, the tables turn. Wiesler steals Dreyman’s copy of Brecht and takes it home to read; he starts to omit details in his official account; and, for some fathomless reason - guilt, curiosity, longing - he lets the lives of others run their course.” As part of this engrossing process, Lane might have added Wiesler’s listening to Dreyman’s piano playing, of Sonata for a Good Man from sheet music given to playwright Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) as a 40th birthday gift by the suicidal, blacklisted director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert).
The superslim KolibriThe Lives of Others was released in 2006 and was the feature film debut of Donnersmarck (whose name, Lane wrote, “makes him sound like a lover with a duelling scar on his cheekbone in a 19th-century novel”). The movie went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Its ending is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a movie. Lane summed it up well: “Against all odds, though, the best is yet to come: an ending of overwhelming simplicity and force, in which the hopes of the film - as opposed to its fears, which have shivered throughout - come gently to rest. What happens is that a character says, ‘Es ist für mich’ – ‘It’s for me.’ When you see the film, as you must, you will understand why the phrase is like a blessing. To have something bestowed on ‘me’—not on a tool of the state, not on a scapegoat or a sneak, but on me—is a sign that individual liberties have risen from the dead. You might think that The Lives of Others is aimed solely at modern Germans—at all the Wieslers, the Dreymans, and the weeping Christa-Marias. A movie this strong, however, is never parochial, nor is it period drama. Es ist für uns. It’s for us.”
Not only is it for us, but it is also – as I found to my great delight today – a film very much for our times. It speaks to our present-day fears, in a world where political corruption – in just about every major country one can think of – is more rife and strident than ever before. The film unobtrusively signals the demise of the Communist Bloc with a newspaper headline announcing Mikhail Gorbachev’s elevation to Soviet presidency, but the end of the USSR has merely ushered in of new era of extreme Right Wing Fascism and an almost universal undermining of democracy. The Lives of Others is definitely well worth watching all over again. It very much remains timely.
An East German forensic document examiner demonstrates different typewriter fonts to the Stasi.
A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times on February 9, 2007 (“A Fugue for Good German Men”), Wiesler and Dreyman, as true patriots, needed to commit treason. And treason is exactly what Donald Trump is accusing Democrats of committing in their efforts to impeach him. Scott said, “ … as Georg is driven toward actions that implicate him, for the first time, in dissident activity, Wiesler becomes convinced of Georg’s essential innocence and takes steps to protect him. The plot, as it acquires the breathless momentum of a thriller, also takes on the outlines of a dark joke. The poet and the secret policeman - both writers, in their differing fashions - may be the only two true patriots in the whole German Democratic Republic; in other words, the only people who take the Republic’s stated ideals at face value. But since the nation itself functions by means of the wholesale and systematic betrayal of those ideals, the only way Wiesler and Georg can express their loyalty is by committing treason.” How pointed is that in terms of the republic of the United States and its stated ideals, and a “wholesale and systematic betrayal of those ideals” in 2019-20? East Germany and the Stasi may be gone, but their ghosts appear to be living on, at least in Washington DC.