This film is an unlikely but extremely well made tale of redemption by music. Set in the German Democratic Republic at the beginning of the eighties, still in full pre perestroika era, it gives a convincing account of life in a small police state, where at least three hundred thousand were employed to spy on each citizen and indeed each other. A chilling convincing insight in the secret police methods of interrogation, of the corruption of the ruling classes, and the difficult balancing act of being an idealist and an artist subject to pressure and exposed to the detrimental action of compromise.
It is a deeply moral story. The corruption of the system is still a background against which the characters need to define themselves clearly and are forced to stand out, either good or bad. These people had to make choices, and face the consequences. Those who couldn’t take it were either trying to defect or ended up drinking or committing suicide. Now that the cold war is over, and the iron curtain has crumbled, it is important not to forget that it has been in many ways a shallow victory. Neither due to ideals strength nor moral superiority, but rather a continuous attrition that brought the eastern economies to collapse, starting from the Soviet’s Union inability to keep financing the arms race. We still could have made something of the situation if we had crossed the borders in friendship with some kind of West European Marshall plan to help them rebuild, but we didn’t. They were left to fend for themselves, prey to criminals and bullies, often the same people who had been leaders in the old regime and found ways to appropriate state funds and resources in the new era. Some freedom they got!
Let’s meet the characters: the policeman, the policeman’s boss, the powerful minister, the successful playwright, the talented actress, the playwrights friend, a western journalist. The plot in short: the playwright comes under investigation because the minister is out to seduce his girlfriend – the talented actress-. The policeman eagerly takes the task of prying into the life of this seemingly innocent subject (with typical police mentality, the absence of suspicion is in itself suspect), the minister forces the actress to have a sex with him, while one of the playwrights best friends hangs himself. They all come under pressure: the author decides to oppose the regime by writing an article for a western magazine, denouncing GDR’s suicide rate. The policeman has a change of heart, brought about by hearing a piano sonata through the headphones of his spying equipment, plaid by the writer, and decides to protect him. It will cost him his career. The actress chooses not to sleep with the minister any more, is arrested and forced to betray her man, and ends up committing suicide herself to escape the shame. Strong powerful stuff, a Greek tragedy in fact.
In the new order things need not get so dramatic. There is little need for secrecy in private life or indeed little to oppose. It’s a market place of casual commitments, pragmatic choices, retail deals, light entertainment, and nobody needs to get hurt. I suspect ministers can get laid so often as to get bored by it, actresses sleep around quite matter of factly and policemen are hired more often to cover up secrets than to pry them open. It’s the appearances that matter, the PR. We actually and gladly give away our civil rights to whatever agency asks for them in exchange for the illusion of safety and piece and the trimmings of a comfortable life.
So, as this good film plays some deep chords of our emotions and almost forgotten sensibilities, there is a subtle commotion that rises from the ashes at this historical reconstruction: could it be some kind of nostalgia?