“This is a mournful discovery.
1)Those who agree with you are insane
2)Those who do not agree with you are in power.”
– Phillip K. Dick
The idea that behind the facade of universal intrusion somehow lies a noble glimpse of the human soul is an unsophisticated one, but one tailor-made for the cinema. Audiences, it has been said, are afraid of the dark. The cold empty face of totalitarianism, in all forms, terrifies us. The abyss is made palatable only by finding brief impressions of humanity in Orwell’s endlessly stamping boot-print. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck evidently understands this more than anybody. The Stasi were one of the most effectively ruthless intelligence agencies in existence. There is something willfully romantic in the idea of a prickling flaw in their abilities to repress human expression.
And so to Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Mühe). He is a frozen man, utterly unable to communicate, for to communicate in this society of paranoia is to fall. Instead, he buries his face in the remarkable breasts of a pendulous prostitute and lives in the circadian rhythms of the individuals he is monitoring. ‘Unwrap presents’, he writes of his two subjects, ‘and presumably have intercourse’. His silence is riveting, the backbone of the film. He performs the motions of a human being, but there is little to catch the light behind that white mask.
And his gradual transformation, so gradual that it shocks like ice water, illustrates one of the great ubiquitous doubts. The loyal automaton of state stumbles upon that mournful discovery: those in power would clamber over our dead bodies to get to a good pair of tits. Thus it is a finer comment on the corruption and eventual stagnation of societies than it is a criticism of tyranny. Institutions are only gatherings of lustful, incompetent men and women. Rome itself crumbled. Decay is the only inevitability. Perhaps this is the one true light to shine in that darkness: the impossibility of evil’s perpetuation, and the possibility of ‘good men’, at least in our cinematic art. See: Schindler, Juror 8, Atticus Finch and Gerd Weisler. IF they did not exist, it is necessary to invent them.
But a creeping kind of darkness has come upon us. We are living in a democratic society increasingly at the mercy of its own ingenuity. The institutions that we have created to protect us are crumbling into moral feebleness. Technology is being to used to infiltrate our every movement. Such things did not save East Germany, or Socialism; they seem to the thoughtful mind to be the descent of a society into the throes of cripping rigor mortis. History rolls on. It is now the victors who have become fraudulent and ruthless.
But we few fanatics of that strange art already know the finale, or think we do. As William Dean Howells told Edith Wharton: “Americans only want tragedies with happy endings.” And there is no grander delusion than cinema.