The film portrays 1984 life in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), which was in the administrative grips of the Stasi (State Secret Police). It adeptly defines how power, well intentioned in theory, can so easily be subverted. The film is a long movie (2 hrs. 17 min.), but seems much shorter. Its plot is quite complex, yet holds the viewer spellbound throughout. We really don’t know the real hero of the film until its closing frames, which bespeaks of a well-crafted plot.
The film exemplifies how extremely easy it is for any governing authorities to abuse power by eliminating the rights of the populace in the name of national security or “for the national good”. For example, it diffuses the justifications in favor of restrictions on rights to privacy. Arguments that use the premise, “Infringements of personal privacy rights are irrelevant, if you have nothing to hide” are themselves demonstrated as irrelevant.
The GDR had the power to surveil anyone it considered suspicious or held beliefs against the best interests of the state. The potential for abuse is immediately obvious. Who (or what process) is to decide the issue of what is “suspicious”? In the film a high-ranking Stasi functionary takes a shine to the famed, actress girlfriend of the writer protagonist (Georg Dreyman). Initially, Dreyman has no particular ax to grind with the state per se and holds no particular anti-government opinions. Yet, he is declared “suspicious” and is brought under investigation by the Stasi.
An efficient, career ideologue (Captain Gerd Wiesler) is put in charge of the surveillance operation with the connivance of Wiesler’s comrade and Stasi classmate. Wiesler, himself, undergoes a slow metamorphosis as he spys on the lives of the creative, artist community. The sole intent of the surveillance is to “get something on Dreyman” to eliminate him as the Stasi bureaucrat’s competition for the girl friend. This clearly is a pure abuse of the GDR’s surveillance power.
Dreyman is unaware his apartment has been bugged. Slowly, his attitude towards the GDR changes. His once famous, now blacklisted, writer friend commits suicide in the seventh year of his creative banishment. Dreyman elects to write an article to be smuggled out of the GDR about why the GDR suicide rate is the second highest in the world. Only Hungary’s is higher. The article is published in Der Spiegel, a West German news magazine. The search is on in the GDR for the author of the article. It is suspected Dreyman is the perpetrator. The Stasi searches his apartment, but finds nothing. The drug addiction of Dreyman’s girlfriend is discovered and exploited. She is prevailed upon to spy for the Stasi. She reveals the identity of Dreyman as the author of the article. She also reveals the clandestine location of the typewriter on which the article was typed. The typewriter will unambiguously link Dreyman to the article. The typewriter is in a secret compartment in Dreyman’s apartment.
As the film reaches its climax, the Stasi reenters Dreyman’s apartment and opens the hidden compartment, but surprisingly finds no typewriter. It is immediately suspected that the girlfriend has removed it, but that is not the case. There are several surprises as the film reaches its denouement. The real hero of the film has removed the typewriter. Dreyman does not discover that person’s identity for many years. The Stasi charges against Dreyman are dropped.
Meanwhile, the East-West wall comes down in 1989 and Dreyman becomes newly famous as he plies his trade in the now reunited Germany. In 1991, he chances upon the ex-Stasi functionary, who had instituted his surveillance. Dreyman finds out for the first time that he had been under investigation in the GDR all those many years before. He searches through his now public Stasi files and discovers who his secret benefactor had been.
The film is highly recommended. Its recent Oscar award as the best foreign film was certainly justified. The film’s impact can be summed up by what occurred in the jammed theater when the film ended. The audience burst into spontaneous applause ! This film presents a truly gripping tale.
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Note: I visited East Berlin in the German Democratic Republic well before the timeframe of this movie. I went there with a colleague, who had grown up in a communist society. Our visit took place on a weekend. There were virtually no pedestrians on the streets. My friend explained that was the way life tends to be in a communist society. People stick close to family in their free time and do not venture out much. As a result, an eerie feeling prevailed on East Berlin’s sparsely trafficked sidewalks. This film’s outdoor scenes captured that mood of almost tangible desolation perfectly. I felt I was there once again.