No other phrase accurately captures the true spirit of the 80s more than Michael Douglas’ famous “greed is good speech in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street (1987).
The excessive economic prosperity of Regan’s era and the full blossoming of capitalism were the dominant hallmarks of this morally ambiguous decade.
Growing up in the 80s, I experienced the numerous ills of capitalism in my home country: The scandals of so-called money-employment companies; the death of the intellectual middle-class and the rise of the nouveau riche; the new-found obsession with consumerism and the hunger for wealth.
Capitalism, I assumed later, meant the death of morality, intellectualism and civilization. My ideas were fostered years later in college where history was, unintentionally, presented from a primarily socialist perspective by one of my most influential teachers.
Like many of those who grew up in the Nasser era and later witnessed the impotency of capitalism in creating social equality, my teacher was nostalgic about a time and place where concepts like equality and social justice seemed possible.
The basic fundamentals of socialism scripted in books like “The Communism Manifesto by Karl Marx seemed idealistic to me. There’s one condition Marx overlooked in his book: For a social and political system like communism to be established, humans must be as idealistic and perfect as the ideology itself.
But they weren’t, and the ruthless repercussions of communism soon surfaced. The system proved to be even more impotent in attempting to accomplish these unattainable principles.
My teacher was no different than citizens of former East Germany who – despite the lack of freedom and the officials’ candid abuse of power – longed for the stability and consistency of the past.
Three of the most recent German films illustrated this increasing sentiment: “What to Do in Case of Fire, “The Edukators, and “Goodbye Lenin!
One small-budgeted German film broke the mould in 2006, reminding Germans and Marxists that the reality of communist states did not resemble the rosy picture they reminisce over.
The $2 million budgeted film was “The Lives of Others, the first feature from director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, which won seven German Film Awards, three European Film Awards, including best picture, and the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
The film is set in 1984 before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Stasi secret service agent Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is the model Eastern German citizen who dedicates his life to his work. A skilled interrogator, Wiesler enjoys extorting the truth from people using subtle psychological weapons.
One night he is invited to attend the latest production from popular dramatist Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Confident, down-to-earth and a firm believer in his government, Dreyman appears to be beyond suspicion.
Dreyman lives with his girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), a tall, graceful actress who is widely regarded as the first lady of East German theater.
At the end of the show, Minister Bruno Hempf instructs Wiesler to wiretap the couple’s apartment.
He spends his entire work day spying on them and is gradually affected by their quiet life, passion for their craft, and heartfelt patriotism.
He also discovers that Hempf is infatuated with Christa-Maria, and hopes Wiesler can find any kind of dirt on his rival.
As Dreyman begins to question the system following the suicide of his poet friend, Wiesler’s interest in the couple develops into a strange love affair.
“The Life of Others is set in a world where happiness seems unimaginable to its rulers. Before the fall of the wall, the Stasi were known to have recruited an estimated 300,000 agents to spy on a population of 17 million.
One of the astonishing true stories related to the film concerns Mühe, an established theater actor in East Germany, who finds out that his own wife and some members of his theater company were working for the Stasi.
Colors look like they’re washed out from the world of the film’s characters. Vivid reds and blues are non-existent and an atmosphere of hopelessness and unrest dominates the larger part of the story.
Many critics have used the word “change to describe Wiesler’s transformation. But in essence – behind his rigid guise – he is a decent man working to uphold his government’s ideologies. When the true colors of these ideologies are revealed, he continues fighting for what he believes to be morally correct.
“The Lives of Others has been called a perfect picture, and it’s difficult to find another word to describe it. The three leads give astonishing performances. Koch plays his character’s restrained heroism and perplexity with captivating grace. With another actor, the character could have been mistakenly portrayed as haughty.
Gedeck as Christa-Maria is the real tragic character of the story and a victim of the Stasi. The key emotional scenes in the film find Christa-Maria either acting against her beliefs or lamenting the choices she was forced to make.
Mühe, who sadly passed away months ago, is the force behind the film. His Wiesler is a man trained to hold back his emotions, to suppress weakness and to suspect everyone.
The days he spends listening to Dreyman, a man no different than him at heart, enable Wiesler to envision a different life – one he can never have. Wiesler doesn’t simply defend the couple; he defends a dream that becomes the only meaningful aspect of his life.
The ending of “The Lives of Others is arguably the most cathartic film ending since “The Shawshank Redemption. The film is a thriller, a historical drama and a tragedy dripping with hope.
In his first feature, von Donnersmarck strips the glory from the concept of heroism. He constructs a story of redemption and the possibility of goodness in a place where righteousness is a remote idea.
“The Lives of Others is screening tomorrow at the French Culture Center of Alexandria. Check the agenda for more information.