This seems to be a week for movie reviews. Last night we rented "The Lives of Others"--a great film, and an uncomfortably timely reminder of the cruelty and the futility of torture in a week when the Burma junta of generals again comes to world attention with their human rights abuses; and on a day (yesterday) when the New York Times headlined the shameful story of Bush's continuing, secret authorization of techniques "to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics" in the course of interrogation.
"The Lives of Others" is the story of a state-sponsored eavesdropper and torturer--not the kind who pulls out toenails and applies electrical shocks to the genitals, but one who gets results by sleep and sustenance deprivation and prolonged, relentless and implacable questioning followed up by threats to the subject's loved ones. The first scene shows that he's very good at what he does. He's on his way up in the Stasi (the former East German secret police) organization. He seems bloodless, pitiless, intent--and deadly fearsome in his impassivity. (A brilliant performance, by the way, by the actor Ulrich Muehe.)
Once it begins, the story involves a famous playwright of conscience and his actress lover--the unfortunate object of lust of a senior state official who orders the exposure of the playwright as a national enemy. Our hero is given the assignment to bug and monitor the apartment that the couple share, and the story is of his gradual awakening to the realization that neither he nor the state have the right to spy on the private "lives of others." Falsifying the reports from his nightly surveillance from a loft above the apartment, he increasingly puts his own career on the line, risking exposure, disgrace, and imprisonment himself.
The plot thickens with the suicide of a despairing friend of the writer in this oppressive regime, and his decision to smuggle an illegal article on the subject to a West German magazine. The events lead to a climax that is at once heart-breaking and, finally, uplifting, as our spy comes to listen to the voice of his own conscience with unintentionally tragic results. Forced by the Stasi to practice his dark art on the actress this lonely man has come, in some strange way, to love, he is confronted decisively with the inner conflict between the path his life has taken and a good, human, even compassionate heart.
The tragedy here is the senselessness of it all, the way in which truth evaporates in the grip of the police state, where torture and compulsion stifle it, wrecking lives along the way. It is shameful, indeed, to think that our own country practices such methods, employing terror in the name of fighting terror. It is shameful to have a President and a Department of Justice who sanction such behavior, in the face of common consensus that it is not only inhuman but that its results are as likely to be false and unreliable. We are not a police state in this country, but we have unforgivably allowed our government to adopt some of the police state's tactics; and to see this gripping movie about a period we have supposedly left behind us, along with the Cold War, is to be reminded, tragically, of what is still being perpetrated in our name.
(Oh, and then I open up my New York Times this morning and find this picture on the front page.
Remind you of anyone?)