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Movies as history

September 10, 2009 - Steve Murch
In the last couple of months I've watched a couple of German movies (thank you Netflix) about East Germany. The first was The Lives of Others, which was set in 1980s East Germany, while the second was The Tunnel, which criss-crossed the Berlin Wall (actually the wall was being erected through the movie.

In The Lives of Others (which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film), the Stasi – East Germany's intelligence agency – spies on a successful playwright and his girlfriend. The story revolves around one Stasi agent who begins to doubt the legitimacy of the spying on this playwright, who had always been loyal to the Party. In a twist, the playwright changes his mind and has an article published in a West German magazine. There are many twists and turns that lead to the girlfriend's death and the emotion of the agent to the Stasi mail room.

In the features included on the disc, the actor who played the agent said he looked at his file that was kept by the Stasi after files were opened to the public following the combining of one Germany. He was just an actor, but a file was kept on him.

The second movie, The Tunnel, began in 1961. It is based on a true story of one group of Berliners who cross into West Berlin to freedom, but build a tunnel across the border to sneak their family members across to freedom. The nearly three hour movie takes its time and tells a gripping story of resolve. The story has many layers dealing with people on both sides of the border.

The one thing I took away from both movies is I wonder what the German people thought. Especially the older people who lived through it. I wonder what those who remained loyal to East Germany thought and their reaction to the way the movies portrayed the Stasi and the army. Do they view the negative aspects of their country in film differently than we would view ours? Whenever a film comes out that is controversial about our history – especially one that portrays something or someone in a negative light – those who are sympathetic to those who are being exposed call the film a fabrication or exaggeration.

While The Tunnel won an Academy Award, I don't know if it won anything in Germany. The Lives of Others won the German equivalent to an Oscar.

I would recommend watching both, and keep the subtitles on. I've never understood why you would want to watch a film that is dubbed because the emotion is never stated the same.


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