Cuba, Bush and “The Lives of Others”

Jay Nordlinger’s column is one of the few places I’ve seen extensive coverage of President Bush’s little-mentioned, must read speech in which he dares to talk plainly about the much distorted realities of Cuba and communism.

Says Bush:

Cuba’s rulers promised individual liberty. Instead they denied their citizens basic rights that the free world takes for granted. In Cuba it is illegal to change jobs, to change houses, to travel abroad, and to read books or magazines without the express approval of the state. It is against the law for more than three Cubans to meet without permission. Neighborhood Watch programs do not look out for criminals. Instead, they monitor their fellow citizens — keeping track of neighbors’ comings and goings, who visits them, and what radio stations they listen to. The sense of community and the simple trust between human beings is gone.

In a funny synchronicity, my husband came home the other night with a borrowed copy of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar Winning film “The Lives of Others”. After moaning for a second that he hated subtitles, he settled in and we watched one of the best, most absorbing and chilling films we’ve seen in years.

Set in East Berlin a few years before Glasnost, before Reagan said, “tear down this wall.” The Stasi (State Security Agency) has 100,000 employees and 200,000 informants. We follow the lives of one couple who – through no fault of their own – come to the attention of the Stasi, who are intent on finding evidence of crime (which can be defined as anything as threatening to the party as the expression of a doubt, or the telling of a joke) where none exist. In a particularly creepy scene, a Stasi captain, observing that a neighbor has seen his crew bug the protagonist’s apartment, explains to her that a word of warning to the neighbor will end her daughter’s academic career at University. Throughout the film we see minor characters intimidated, terrified and distrustful. East Germany’s suicide rate is second only to Hungary’s and watching these lonely, desperate lives, observing the ease with which careers are destroyed on the merest whim of an ambitious party member, or the merest unguarded whimsy of a joke, is hair-raising. We see clearly that a government that “gives” all to “the people” is an illusion, and that when government is handed power over some of your life – ostensibly for your own good – that power can be turned against you..

Says President Bush:

Cuba’s rulers promised freedom of the press. Instead they closed down private newspapers and radio and television stations. They’ve jailed and beaten journalists, raided their homes, and seized their paper, ink and fax machines. One Cuban journalist asked foreigners who visited him for one thing: a pen.


In The Lives of Others,
our first protagonist is a successful playwright who has managed rather easily and charmingly to bridge the divide between the freedom of his art and the restrictions of his government. His life is rather better than the lives of others, and one gets the sense that he is not fully appreciative of how tenuous are his privileges. The suicide of a dear friend – a blacklisted director – seems to bring that message home to him. He writes an article on the hopelessness reflected in East Germany’s suicide rate, and tries to get it smuggled out, to the West.

Bush said:

Joining us here are family members of political prisoners in Cuba. I’ve asked them to come because I want our fellow citizens to see the faces of those who suffer as a result of the human rights abuses on the island some 90 miles from our shore. One of them is Olga Alonso. Her brother, Ricardo Gonzalez Alonso [sic], has been harassed by Cuban authorities since he was 11 years old, because he wrote things that the Cuban authorities did not like. In 2003, Ricardo was arrested for his writings and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The authorities seized illegal contraband they found in his home. These included such things as a laptop computer, notebooks and a printer.

In The Lives of Others, our protagonist is outfitted (by dissident friends) with a new typewriter because the East German government would be able to identify his work by his own instrument’s typeface. The government knew, you see, what every artist used to create his art, the easier to track any dissent.

The Lives of Others has moments
of beauty interspersed with scenes of harrowing loneliness, shame, purposeless and hopelessness, but the moments of beauty are sublime – a man at the piano, his music deeply affecting the Stasi agent assigned to listen in – a conversation between that agent and a child of about six. The little boy, holding a ball, enters an elevator with the agent and asks, “is it true you are with the Stasi?” The agent responds, “do you even know what the Stasi is?” The boy: “My father says they are the bad men…”

The agent, on automatic pilot, begins to ask the boy what is the name of his father – another comrade to check up on, you see – except he seems to realize he is about to exploit an innocent, and he stops himself. The Stasi agent, in his relentless, thorough and dedicated spying, has observed real, committed and selfless love. He has been moved by art (which so many disdain as useless). He has encountered a true innocent in a land where no one is considered that. And just moving against the periphery of this powerful but underappreciated trinity – love, art, innocence – rocks the Stasi’s world.

This is a great movie, which I can’t recommend enough. Watched with Bush’s speech about Cuba in mind, it’s a one-two punch to the American psyche, both a wake-up call to renewed appreciation for (and dedication to) the liberties we enjoy and too easily take for granted, and an pointed reminder that there are people suffering from totalitarianism a mere 90 miles from our shore.

Go read the rest of President Bush’s remarks on Cuba, and The Freedom Fund for Cuba, which is being implemented under his administration, and then rent The Lives of Others. Submit to the one-two punch, without investing your own ideological spins and partisan furies into them. I believe you will be moved, for the better.

Also read: this Wired Magazine article on East Germany. Fascinating.

Related: Is Totalitarianism Incompatible with Religion?
The Remnant: To Worship Underground

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com lsusportsfan

    Great post. Your linking of that movies and Bush’s remarks reminds me of the exploits of the Eastern European Supermodel last year that was so brave for speaking out and putting her welfare on the line as to Cuba.

    Bush , Fashion Models speak out but we wish to take a vacation from it sadly

  • http://opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com lsusportsfan

    Great post. Your linking of that movies and Bush’s remarks reminds me of the exploits of the Eastern European Supermodel last year that was so brave for speaking out and putting her welfare on the line as to Cuba.

    Bush , Fashion Models speak out but we wish to take a vacation from it sadly

  • Pingback: » Cuba, Bush and “The Lives of Others” NoisyRoom.net: Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace. Amelia Earhart

  • Pingback: » Cuba, Bush and “The Lives of Others” NoisyRoom.net: Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace. Amelia Earhart

  • http://hillaryneedsavacation.blogspot.com/ HNAV

    Thank you…

    But can I really refrain from my partisan view?

    I have contemplated, that honesty is perhaps my most sincere partisan motive.

    Hard to dismiss…

    Not that I am perfectly honest, but I do try.

    Deceit can be unintentional, denial exists, misguided convictions developed with poor information, etc…

    What is the truth?

    Cuba is basically a prison.

    Sadly, many who make film today, cannot see this vivid fact.

    Is it purely ignorance, bias, agenda, or fashion as well?

    Perhaps someday, a MLB team will emerge from a free Cuba, and the club from Havana will challenge the Yankees.

    Anyway, until then…

    In relation to your fine post:
    Hollywood’s War on the War on Terror
    By Michael Fumento
    New York Sun, October 25, 2007

    http://www.fumento.com/military/rendition.html

  • http://hillaryneedsavacation.blogspot.com/ HNAV

    Thank you…

    But can I really refrain from my partisan view?

    I have contemplated, that honesty is perhaps my most sincere partisan motive.

    Hard to dismiss…

    Not that I am perfectly honest, but I do try.

    Deceit can be unintentional, denial exists, misguided convictions developed with poor information, etc…

    What is the truth?

    Cuba is basically a prison.

    Sadly, many who make film today, cannot see this vivid fact.

    Is it purely ignorance, bias, agenda, or fashion as well?

    Perhaps someday, a MLB team will emerge from a free Cuba, and the club from Havana will challenge the Yankees.

    Anyway, until then…

    In relation to your fine post:
    Hollywood’s War on the War on Terror
    By Michael Fumento
    New York Sun, October 25, 2007

    http://www.fumento.com/military/rendition.html

  • http://hillaryneedsavacation.blogspot.com/ HNAV

    How about this for partisan?

    Remember Charlize Theron, claiming the People of Cuba share the same (or more) freedom as those in the USA?

    Movie makers and communism…

    Never a healthy mix for reality.

    http://hillaryneedsavacation.blogspot.com/2007/02/you-have-got-to-be-kidding.html

  • http://hillaryneedsavacation.blogspot.com/ HNAV

    How about this for partisan?

    Remember Charlize Theron, claiming the People of Cuba share the same (or more) freedom as those in the USA?

    Movie makers and communism…

    Never a healthy mix for reality.

    http://hillaryneedsavacation.blogspot.com/2007/02/you-have-got-to-be-kidding.html

  • maria horvath

    Check out the other great film about East Germany and the malevolent Stasi Big Brothers. “The Tunnel” is the story about a great escape that took place during the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. It’s one of the most thrilling films about freedom and heroism and sacrifice ever made, all the more gripping because it’s true.

    My mother was German. Some of her relatives ended up on the wrong side of the border after the War, in the Communist sector. About ten years before the Wall came down, she visited one of her cousins in East Berlin. They had been very close as young girls. As they sat down for tea, after many years of separation, my mother asked her cousin, So, what is it really like here? Is it as bad as people say? Her cousin stood up, looked around the room and the next, and whispered when she came back to the table, I’ll tell you when the grandchildren are gone. They get asked in school about what is said in the home.

    Yes, it was worse, much worse, than people said.

  • maria horvath

    Check out the other great film about East Germany and the malevolent Stasi Big Brothers. “The Tunnel” is the story about a great escape that took place during the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. It’s one of the most thrilling films about freedom and heroism and sacrifice ever made, all the more gripping because it’s true.

    My mother was German. Some of her relatives ended up on the wrong side of the border after the War, in the Communist sector. About ten years before the Wall came down, she visited one of her cousins in East Berlin. They had been very close as young girls. As they sat down for tea, after many years of separation, my mother asked her cousin, So, what is it really like here? Is it as bad as people say? Her cousin stood up, looked around the room and the next, and whispered when she came back to the table, I’ll tell you when the grandchildren are gone. They get asked in school about what is said in the home.

    Yes, it was worse, much worse, than people said.

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  • Bender B. Rodriguez

    Yet another great film is Andy Garcia’s The Lost City, which is about the effect on one family from the rise of power of Castro and Che.

  • Bender B. Rodriguez

    Yet another great film is Andy Garcia’s The Lost City, which is about the effect on one family from the rise of power of Castro and Che.

  • rcareaga

    Madame A–

    I quite agree with you as to the overall merits of The Lives of Others (although I differ with your husband on the matter of subtitles; I won’t sit through a dubbed foreign language film if I can avoid it). Toward the end of the film–I’ll try to frame this carefully so as not to spoil it for them as haven’t seen it–there comes a sequence in which it looks as though two paths are going to cross for the first time, and watching this I was thinking “Oh, no. The filmmakers have got the tone letter-perfect throughout, and now they’re going to spoil it with a mawkish dénouement.” And of course–o me of little faith!–they did not spoil anything in the event: indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how they might have carried it off any better.

    I am also pleased to warmly second your assertion that “when government is handed power over some of your life – ostensibly for your own good – that power can be turned against you.” I note that to illustrate the premise you link to a National Review piece on the dire threat to our ancient liberties posed by “universal [health] coverage.” Could be, could be, although I don’t know that this would be the first example that would come to mind had I written the review. Indeed, after sitting raptly through The Lives of Others I might find myself worried less about creeping health coverage, which remains after all a rather distant threat with powerful and well-funded foes–Harry and Louise didn’t work pro bono–and more about the Stasi-style creeping surveillance that has become more and more a part of our national life for the past several decades and particularly since 2001. If we are disposed not to trust government to make decisions about our health care options even though the motives are “ostensibly for [our] own good,” ought we not be at least as reluctant to let it tap our telephones or read our electronic and snail mails even though it purports to be protecting us against the minions of Allah? This sort of thing also erodes “the sense of community and the simple trust between human beings.”

    cordially,

  • rcareaga

    Madame A–

    I quite agree with you as to the overall merits of The Lives of Others (although I differ with your husband on the matter of subtitles; I won’t sit through a dubbed foreign language film if I can avoid it). Toward the end of the film–I’ll try to frame this carefully so as not to spoil it for them as haven’t seen it–there comes a sequence in which it looks as though two paths are going to cross for the first time, and watching this I was thinking “Oh, no. The filmmakers have got the tone letter-perfect throughout, and now they’re going to spoil it with a mawkish dénouement.” And of course–o me of little faith!–they did not spoil anything in the event: indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how they might have carried it off any better.

    I am also pleased to warmly second your assertion that “when government is handed power over some of your life – ostensibly for your own good – that power can be turned against you.” I note that to illustrate the premise you link to a National Review piece on the dire threat to our ancient liberties posed by “universal [health] coverage.” Could be, could be, although I don’t know that this would be the first example that would come to mind had I written the review. Indeed, after sitting raptly through The Lives of Others I might find myself worried less about creeping health coverage, which remains after all a rather distant threat with powerful and well-funded foes–Harry and Louise didn’t work pro bono–and more about the Stasi-style creeping surveillance that has become more and more a part of our national life for the past several decades and particularly since 2001. If we are disposed not to trust government to make decisions about our health care options even though the motives are “ostensibly for [our] own good,” ought we not be at least as reluctant to let it tap our telephones or read our electronic and snail mails even though it purports to be protecting us against the minions of Allah? This sort of thing also erodes “the sense of community and the simple trust between human beings.”

    cordially,

  • TheAnchoress

    I know it will amaze you to learn, Rand, that I am uncomfortable with giving a president – any president – too many powers, and my support for the NSA actions is what I think of as simple pragmatism in a dangerous age (as, apparently do the Democrats, regardless of their rhetoric.) That doesn’t mean I am “comfortable” with it, or unaware of the dangers inherent in any process wherein we consent to give governments more access to our private lives. One never knows how the next president, or the next congress, or the next Justice Department will use those powers. But I think in circumstances such as the NSA program, people are not completely unaware of those risks, and they expect a certain amount of transparency and accountability where it is concerned. At the very least, they know the press will “watchdog” it – at least under some administrations.

    I suspect that government “goodies” which seem to give you “a bargain” in exchange for a little less autonomy are much more insideous, because too many acquiesce without thinking about the risks, or what they are potentially giving up. And the press, in the case of socialized health care, will be less likely to “watchdog” it – particularly under some administrations.

    In another post, I linked to the story of a woman who lost her bladder because the Canadian medical system limited the number of simple procedures to correct her problem. She didn’t have the freedom to pay her own way – her health care was out of her control. I don’t like that some in this country want to move us in a direction that is proving a failure in other countries. One of the blogs which linked to me – Amused Cynic, I think – links to a story whereby William & Mary College is instituting a very Stasi-esque policy. I don’t think you have to be “left” or “right” to be concerned, and to realize that an effort must be made to make distinctions between a necessary risk to our freedoms like the NSA program, and an unnecessary one.

  • TheAnchoress

    I know it will amaze you to learn, Rand, that I am uncomfortable with giving a president – any president – too many powers, and my support for the NSA actions is what I think of as simple pragmatism in a dangerous age (as, apparently do the Democrats, regardless of their rhetoric.) That doesn’t mean I am “comfortable” with it, or unaware of the dangers inherent in any process wherein we consent to give governments more access to our private lives. One never knows how the next president, or the next congress, or the next Justice Department will use those powers. But I think in circumstances such as the NSA program, people are not completely unaware of those risks, and they expect a certain amount of transparency and accountability where it is concerned. At the very least, they know the press will “watchdog” it – at least under some administrations.

    I suspect that government “goodies” which seem to give you “a bargain” in exchange for a little less autonomy are much more insideous, because too many acquiesce without thinking about the risks, or what they are potentially giving up. And the press, in the case of socialized health care, will be less likely to “watchdog” it – particularly under some administrations.

    In another post, I linked to the story of a woman who lost her bladder because the Canadian medical system limited the number of simple procedures to correct her problem. She didn’t have the freedom to pay her own way – her health care was out of her control. I don’t like that some in this country want to move us in a direction that is proving a failure in other countries. One of the blogs which linked to me – Amused Cynic, I think – links to a story whereby William & Mary College is instituting a very Stasi-esque policy. I don’t think you have to be “left” or “right” to be concerned, and to realize that an effort must be made to make distinctions between a necessary risk to our freedoms like the NSA program, and an unnecessary one.

  • rcareaga

    Third time’s the charm! (and I am moved to violate my own rule against emoticons):

    ; )

  • rcareaga

    Third time’s the charm! (and I am moved to violate my own rule against emoticons):

    ; )

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  • TheAnchoress

    Geez, what a night!

  • TheAnchoress

    Geez, what a night!

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  • Peter

    William Buckley reviewed “The Lives of Others” in NRO. He said a friend of his called and told him to drop whatever he was doing and see the movie. Buckley said it was one of the best movies he had ever seen. In the middle of the movie, he felt the urge to go out on the street and direct people in to see it.

    I look forward to seeing it.

    I remember driving across East Germany towards West Berlin during the summer of ’83 with some friends. In what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we turned off to get out and stretch on what turned out to be an “unofficial” turn off. Police materialized from I don’t no where in minutes. They had their eyes on us. Later, in East Berlin, I took out my camera to take a picture of the Wall. A plain clothesed policeman appeared immediately and took my camera.

    East Berlin at that time was the greyest, deadest place I’ve ever seen.

  • Peter

    William Buckley reviewed “The Lives of Others” in NRO. He said a friend of his called and told him to drop whatever he was doing and see the movie. Buckley said it was one of the best movies he had ever seen. In the middle of the movie, he felt the urge to go out on the street and direct people in to see it.

    I look forward to seeing it.

    I remember driving across East Germany towards West Berlin during the summer of ’83 with some friends. In what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we turned off to get out and stretch on what turned out to be an “unofficial” turn off. Police materialized from I don’t no where in minutes. They had their eyes on us. Later, in East Berlin, I took out my camera to take a picture of the Wall. A plain clothesed policeman appeared immediately and took my camera.

    East Berlin at that time was the greyest, deadest place I’ve ever seen.

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  • http://sunset-stories.blogspot.com/ sunset

    I just saw this movie last night at the SF Berlin & Beyond Film Festival. A stunning story. And as a German-American, the story hits home. I especially appreciate Muehe’s portrayal of Wiesler as human, after all.

    Here’s my write-up on it: http://sunset-stories.blogspot.com/2008/01/lives-of-others-is-for-you.html

    Always,
    ~ Sunset

  • http://sunset-stories.blogspot.com/ sunset

    I just saw this movie last night at the SF Berlin & Beyond Film Festival. A stunning story. And as a German-American, the story hits home. I especially appreciate Muehe’s portrayal of Wiesler as human, after all.

    Here’s my write-up on it: http://sunset-stories.blogspot.com/2008/01/lives-of-others-is-for-you.html

    Always,
    ~ Sunset


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