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.
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.
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.