It's 1986. The East is heavy with coal. The concrete rises story after uniform story. There are rats in the attic of our soot-stained Ahrensfelde home and the cemetery nearby is equally greyed and barren.
I was three years old when we lived on the other side of the iron curtain, but the sights and especially smells of East Berlin still trigger an emotional response elicited by few other phenomena. Our memories of early childhood are, of course, sparse and reconstructed, and the importance I place on that time in my life is largely a result of subsequent developments, like that day in November three years later when my dad sat watching the television and crying. The result is that stories of life in the DDR, particularly when set in the 80s, automatically carry greater emotional resonance.
I was bowled over by Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Particularly impressive was the sympathetic portrayal of the committed ideologue even before his aesthetic conversion, who, because of his very commitment, cannot easily watch his beloved system be so abused by those in power. In fact, I wonder if the man's quiet dedication had fostered the sort of attentiveness that allowed him, after all those years, to recognize and be moved by the beauty in the world of the writer Dreyman. Perhaps ideologue and aesthete tread some common ground, ground unfamiliar to those interested only in personal gain and utility.
Of course, our sympathy for the quiet Wiesler increases due to his heroic sabotage of the Stasi system. There was much to appreciate about the DDR. Those who had few material desires, who had little personal ambition, could live quite comfortably and enjoy many of its definite advantages (I think always of the education and health care). But then there was the Stasi. A few years ago I sat in on a conversation between my father and the former pastor of the Mennonite church in East Berlin. They would not look at the records, they decided. What was the point? They were already reasonably certain that three of the members in the congregation had been active informants.
Accompanying the soot and the concrete were watchfulness and fear, strategy and enforced silence. Perhaps it's naïve to think this doesn't take place in our capitalist republic, but I simply do not live in fear of the government, and for that I am increasingly grateful.