24 May 2009

Mensch, wer bist Du?

The Federal Republic of Germany celebrated its 60th anniversary on 23 May - the day after it marked 60 years since the promulgation of the Basic Law - just two of the dates in this year of anniversaries. But this year also marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the German Democratic Republic and 20 years since the peaceful revolution, and by coincidence I found myself watching Das Leben der Anderen on DVD.

I first saw the film just over two years ago at the Filmtheater am Friedrichshain - it was a strange experience - the cinema was about 200 metres from where I lived when I was in East Berlin from 1983 to 1984, and the action starts in autumn 1984. Despite the need for a Willing Suspension of Disbelief about elements of the plot - maybe even or especially the central element of a Stasi officer being turned by listening in to the bugging devices in the apartment of an East Berlin writer - there were many details and atmospheric elements that took me back to that time. The exiled GDR singer Wolf Biermann has written about the film's factual inaccuracies and atmospheric truth. Irrespective of the details, it was an odd experience of time shift coming out of the cinema and walking down the darkened streets to the tram stop that I used countless times when I was actually living in East Berlin. (I later discovered that the interior of the apartment of the artist Georg Dreyman was filmed in Hufelandstraße 22 - 250 metres from the cinema where I saw the film and maybe as far again to Georgenkirchstrasse 69.)

Watching the film again I was struck less by the GDR memorabilia, and the contradictions of the plot to the central issue raised by the film, "what does it mean to be good?". At Dreyman's 40th birthday the artist is given the music score of a piano Sonata, "Sonate vom Guten Menschen" (The Sonata of Good Persons), by his friend Albert Jerska, a theatre director who has been prevented from working for seven years by the authorities, while Dreyman officially continues to enjoy the esteem of an officially recognised artist. The piece of music's title alludes to Brecht's, "Der gute Mensch von Sezuan", the story of a prostitute struggles to lead a life that is "good" (according to the terms of the morality that is taught by the gods and to which her fellow citizensf 'Szechwan' pay lip service), without allowing herself to be abused and trod upon.

When Jerska finally from despair commits suicide, Dreyman takes the sonata and plays it with the Stasi officer listening in. Dreyman then decides to write an exposure of the high East German suicide rate to be smuggled to the West German magazine Der Spiegel. (One of the many historical ironies is that the building of the state statistics office, the "staatliche Zentralverwaltung für Statistik", which was keeping the suicide rates secret, now houses the Federal Commission for the Archives of the Stasi, which is opening the files of the secret police.)

As Dreyman furiously types away at his manuscript, a song by the GDR band Bayon, "Stell dich mitten in den Regen", with words by the post Second World War poet and writer Wolfgang Borchert , with the final verse, "Place yourself in the middle of the fire, believe in its monstrosity, in the red wine of the heart, and try to be good." So the message of the film is actually a timeless one, one that transcends the GDR - what does it mean to be good, and who is good? It's a question that - with a little poetic licence - is raised by the Kirchentag - but not, "Mensch, wo bist du?" but "Mensch, wer bist Du?'"(not "Mortal, where are you?" but "Mortal, who are you?")


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