Maybe it’s just because I’m spending a bit of time around a prison at the moment, but the more I think about this wonderful film The Lives Of Others, the more it makes me think of the (superficially) very different The Shawshank Redemption. From 2006, this German Oscar winner gives us the compelling story of surveillance and subversive artists in East Germany before the Wall came down.
It’s quite a simple story, really. A writer is under suspicion of not being the good pro-government voice he appears to be; a dedicated officer is assigned the task of getting the required evidence from surveillance. Evidence is, of course, a loose term – this is someone the Stasi wants to put away. So they just need the right kind of fabricated material. The trouble is, as the listening ear listens in, he is conflicted. He is changed by what he hears, and finds himself working both sides, trying to save the writer’s life and career.
Not much there to remind me of Shawshank, you might say. Here it is, though. What changes the Stasi is the beauty around the writer. Primarily the music he listens to – but other things, also. The party where ideas are exchanged; the plays he writes; the hum of a community of creativity that never idles. It’s something entirely new to him. As he sits in his room, listening to the writer’s life and apartment – such a contrast with the quiet grey of his own life and surroundings – he’s transported from a prison he wasn’t conscious of to a world he’s never encountered. It’s not far from that memorable Shawshank scene where opera music over the loudspeakers briefly gives every last man in the old place a taste of beauty and a dream of something else; the very effect in a nutshell which Tim Robbins’ character, Andy, is there to bring to each of them. Some of them embrace it, some them fly from it (either ignoring him, attacking him, or damaging themselves). In both films beauty transfigures brutality.
The result of all this in The Lives Of Others is a final 20 minutes at once surprising, inevitable, true, beautiful and tragic. In a quiet way, it certainly inspires action. Extreme dictatorships tend to seek to control scientists and eliminate artists. There are good reasons for this. It’s when we create with love and truth that we are closest to the God in whose image we are made. He creates us to engage in creativity. In doing so, light shines and darkness finds itself powerless.