Sunday, April 22, 2007

If you've not yet seen The Lives of Others (Das Leben Der Anderen) then this is the week to see it. Not because the film will be withdrawn any time soon - it's playing in a large number of movie houses and I doubt there's any risk of it being suddenly withdrawn. No, it was the juxtaposition of Sunday's first reading - the story of the conversion of St Paul in the 9th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles - with the theme of the film which prompted me to suggest that you see it this week.

The main character, Gerd Weisler, is a senior Stasi agent in search of subversives within the artistic community in East Germany. The film is set in the year 1984. Mikhail Gorbachev has yet to come to power in the Soviet Union and there is, as yet, no respite from the normality of well-supported surveillance of potential dissidents within the artistic community. Weisler is shown at work during interrogations and while teaching students at a Stasi training school. A true zealot, his orthodoxy allows for none of the personal lapses and retreats into humour sometimes seen among his colleagues.

He is presented with the case of Georg Dreyman - 'one of our best playwrights' - and told that here is an individual above reproach - creative and popular but still a true believer in Socialism and the GDR. Weisler is dubious and takes on the project of finding out the truth - believing that there must be some chink in his armour somewhere.

As the surveillance progresses, it is the interrogator himself who finds himself vulnerable. His fellow officers of the The Ministry for State Security who claim that they are the 'sword and shield' of the people prove to be craven and sloppy individuals attempting to preserve their own niche in the bureaucracy. It becomes clear that Dreyman has been targeted by a government minister with romantic designs on the playwright's girlfriend. Weisler is offended by this intrusion of personal jealousy into the work of the State and so commits his first lapse in discipline, allowing Dreyman to become aware of the minister's interest. His own orthodoxy proves a fragile thing, however, and this first lapse ends up opening up the floodgates. Weisler begins to hear the words being spoken in the apartment he has wired with microphones rather than merely listening to them. His zealotry is exposed for what it is - fear and insecurity - and a better man begins begins to emerge within Gerd Weisler.

Those who are proud to be our 'sword and shield' and who spend their time inspecting the belief and practise of others for signs of weakness or impurity should wonder whether such a divided vocation has its origin in love or in fear.

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