There’s a sharp little sting in the tail at the end of ‘The Lives of Others,’ that exquisitely crafted drama / thriller about the influence of the Stasi secret police in the old East German communist state, written and directed by the spectacularly named Florian Henckel von Donnersmark.
The movie – and if you haven’t seen it, I warmly encourage you to do so – concerns the havoc wreaked upon the life of a successful East German playwright by the Stasi’s decision to start spying on him. The initial reason for the spying – and there is no excuse any more not to realize that human affairs are ruled by a kind of Murphy’s Law when it comes to corruption (if it’s crap and it can happen, then it will) – is that a lecherous East German Minister wants to start sleeping with the writer’s actress girlfriend.
The plot unfolds with suitably gripping and tragic consequences, and heigh ho, a few years later, the Berlin Wall comes down.
Near the very end of the movie, the writer, Dreymann, is attending a performance of one of his old plays in the newly unified Germany. The action on stage drags up too many memories, and he has to flee the auditorium. Outside, he bumps into none other than Hempf, the corrupt former Minister who ordered all the surveillance in the first place.
Hempf, by the way, seems to be doing just fine. There’s a sort of cockroach like invulnerability about the truly corrupt. They’ll always find a way to mutate and migrate. My own country, Ireland, produces hundreds of the f***ers every week, and just like cockroaches, they are immune to the radiation of outrage, to all that change that isn’t really change.
Dreymann, an infinitely more civilised writer than myself, resists (or possibly doesn’t even experience) the urge to headbutt Hempf and kick him in the nuts, and simply confines himself to the noble observation that ‘to think people like you once ruled a country’ (fancy taking a holiday in Ireland, Georg?).
But it is a tribute to the subtlety of ‘The Lives of Others’ that Hempf is then allowed to deliver perhaps the most painful barb of all. Our little Republic wasn’t all that bad, he tells Dreymann. Back then, people in power placed writers and artists under surveillance because they actually cared about what they thought.
True, people were blacklisted and couldn’t work, but that in itself was almost the ultimate backhanded compliment. Their work was important enough for somebody to get annoyed about. What they thought about mattered, even if the GDR thought it mattered so much that nobody should be allowed to hear it.
Hempf contrasts this with the reality of Germany today, the amorphous ‘West’ – that state of being and mind inside which we all reside, to one extent or another – “nothing to believe in, nothing to write against.”
Writers write against stuff all the time, but nobody – in power or out – gives a damn. The collapse of the GDR and its associated pseudo-socialist bedfellows meant the death of any notion that this can be a world of ideas. From 1990 on, capitalism could stream fully out of the closet and vouchsafe to its subjects the final truth: the world is about money. Everything is about money. If you have it, then we want it. If you don’t, then let’s hope you believe in a next life, because there isn’t anything for you here.
Anything you’ve ever heard about the progress of mankind, upward mobility and social advancement was just a load of shit we invented to beat the Commies. Yes, there’s plenty of technology, but technology is absolutely secondary to some fat merchant banker’s ability to make money from it.
There are plenty of technologies you’ll never get to hear about it. They abide in the Gulag of unheard ideas until a number cruncher figures out a way to make them profitable.
Yes, the GDR was a nasty dictatorship. Its citizens did their best to avoid having dealings with any organ of the State, though given a choice, many citizens of so called western democracies might adopt the same course.
But the philosophical nature of the State meant that it cared about ideas, albeit in a primitive, dogmatic, almost superstitious way. It crossed its fingers to ward off the evil of deviation, much as medieval Christians crossed themselves in the presence of possible blasphemy. Even in a primitive way, the State understood that thoughts had power. In our little Republic, Hempf is telling Dreymann, you used to be important, you’re not anymore.
And by the way, it’s utter horse dung to suggest that blacklisting of a sort doesn’t take place all over the West today. There are, perhaps, no official lists of writers that you’re not allowed to read, but there are endless cabals of conformity, conventions written and unwritten whereby the cultural Mafiosi of various countries police and ensure quite a staggering level of compliance with official political, economic and social dogma.
Just look at the number of influential voices who either supported or failed to condemn the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (many of the very same voices are now falling over themselves to condemn every single breath from Donald Trump’s lungs), an event whose sheer folly and illegality continues to bedevil the world today.
Look at how little support there is among the so called intelligentsia for any ideas that might have a dread whiff of ‘leftyness’ about them, such as the creation of a network of state banks to service the small scale needs of ordinary citizens while at the same time curbing some of the naked rapacity of ‘privately owned’ European banks (most of which aren’t even privately owned anymore, but that’s another story).
It means that, in spite of the increase in population and theoretical increase in range and variety of ideas, galleries show an awful lot of art that’s exactly like other art; the vast majority of books published today bear striking similarities to other books that have already been published. The tyranny of dogma has been replaced by the tyranny of money, and the consequent effect on innovation and the generation and nurturing of new ideas, except in a few isolated areas like I.T. and pharmacology, has been utterly stagnating.
Nobody cares. That’s what money would have you believe. It’s not strictly true. People might care if they were allowed to, or if they were offered some sign that the act of caring might make a difference, but money alternately shouts and whispers that it can’t make a difference. In this, it achieves a measure of control beyond anything the Stasi could even have dreamed about.