And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. —Romans 8:28
I’ve talked a lot lately about the nature of our divisions. Politics becomes more bifurcated by the day as parties mercilessly slug it out as brutally and inhumanely as possible. The world grows closer to discontent and chaos while our most impassioned and angry arguments are whether or not Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a bad movie or not. In all of this, I am still a vehement defender that we aren’t living in the worst possible world.
Many of those who face these new challenges of modern life are young. We don’t remember the tumultuous times of the 1960s and 1970s when domestic terrorist groups regularly bombed government buildings or when political leaders were regularly assassinated. We certainly don’t remember the difficulties of the Great Depression or World War II like the greatest generation did and we have all but totally forgotten the horrors of The Great War.
Sardonically speaking, fans of Battlefield 1 or Wonder Woman are probably more historically literate on the subject than the average person. For all the casual terrors of modern life, the terrors we grapple with now are a fraction of those our immediate ancestors suffered. Taking into account the vast jumps of social development, technological innovation, and the social mobility of modern life, pound for pound there really hasn’t ever been a better time to be alive as a human being. As difficult as it is to say sometimes I think we owe it to God to be more grateful that we live when and where we do.
This Fourth of July, I felt compelled to return to several movies. One of them was paradoxically not set in America, nor about America, or an explanation of American values. It’s a 2006 German language film about Stasi Intelligence gathering in Communist East Germany. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen and it’s one that makes me thankful that I live on the right side of the Berlin Wall. The movie is very much about authoritarianism but it isn’t done in the same way you might expect.
Allusions to George Orwell’s 1984 are overplayed but in the totalitarian tradition of “a boot stamping on a human face forever” The Lives of Others portrays the horrors of a police state in entirely quiet terms. This isn’t an action movie with loud police raids and people getting dragged against the wall to be shot for treason. This is a movie about the slow, frightening, and creeping totalitarian power that inserts itself into every area of life until the individual is left no room but to fear that every word that comes out of your mouth may wind up in the little booklet of someone you didn’t know you couldn’t trust. Some of the film’s best scenes just come from the audience understanding how the characters we see slipping up might have every aspect of their career and lives ruined despite their joyous celebration of the German Socialist cause. The film is a psychological thriller disguised as a quiet drama.
As the film starts we don’t see a world that’s brimming with people desperate to escape the horrors of German socialism. All of the characters we meet are dyed in the red of communists whose lives are dedicated fully to the cause. From here we come to understand the fundamental flaw in the system through the relationship of two men. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler is a high ranking interrogator for the Stasi who we come to see is more than capable of securing the truth from any subject through a series of intensive days-long interrogations. For context, the Stasi weren’t merely secret police. Their institution was ten times larger than the Gestapo and was dedicated to totally gathering every ounce of knowledge about the public through highly-detailed interrogation processes and intensive surveillance.
On the other end, we come to know Georg Dreyman, a critically acclaimed socialist playwright whose allegiance to the party is put under suspicion based on his questioning the public blacklisting of his former collaborators for minor transgressions. His critiques aren’t scathing. His collaborators are just as dyed in the red as he is and they’re collective criticisms of the system are meant only to help it. To the Stasi, however, even the most minor form of digression is an obvious sign of treason.
In an authoritarian system, there can be no questions. As we come to understand the system has become so destructive and morale-destroying that East Germany has developed the second highest suicide rate in Europe behind Hungry. The government has stopped counting as they don’t want the numbers to reflect badly upon them. Dreyman’s indiscretion brings down the full force of the Stasi who dedicate the fullest attention towards twenty-four-hour surveillance of his life in an effort to catch him subverting their nation’s aims as they fear.
What sets The Lives of Others apart from more bombastic explorations of the horrors 20th-century communism is its naturalism and mundanity. The story we see didn’t literally happen but it’s so subtle that it’s not hard to imagine that this was true. That’s the thing about totalitarianism. It’s very real but its usually quiet. It’s also terribly invasive. The United States has never been a perfect country and it’s frequently failed to live up to its standards. We see quietly invasive horrors like the NSA spying scandal and it reminds us that the same forces us to fear that the worst elements of humanity can bubble up anywhere. Still, I feel an incredible sigh of relief watching The Lives of Others.
This movie is a warning but it’s also a gauge. For all our mistakes as a country, we aren’t living in a world with evil as mundane and omnipresent as socialist Germany. We’re free men and women who have the full opportunity of the modern world at our fingertips. As difficult as modern life is I think the most important thing we can do this Fourth of July is to be thankful for the blessings we do have. Let’s be thankful that we don’t live under an Orwellian police state where the smallest offhand comment can result in our loved ones being dragged off in the middle of the night. Let’s be thankful that the government needs warrants to come into our lives. Let’s be thankful that we live in a time where we’re blessed with more health, technology, charity, poverty relief, social outreach, and open-mindedness than ever before. We are where we are because thousands of men and women gave us everything so we could have the privilege to live in freedom and opportunity. More importantly, we’re here by God’s will to bring the best versions of ourselves into the world.
Tonight is the Fourth of July! Go out and enjoy a hot dog and a drink with the ones you love. Enjoy the sights and sounds of the fireworks. We have every other day of the year to argue and debate. This world isn’t perfect but it’s the best one we’ve been able to create yet.