Totalitarianism on Screen: The Art and Politics of The Lives of Others eds. by Carl Eric Scott and F. Flagg Taylor IV (review)
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Reviewed by
Carl Eric Scott and F. Flagg Taylor IV, eds. Totalitarianism on Screen: The Art and Politics of The Lives of Others. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2014. 276 pp. US $60.00 (Hardcover). ISBN 978-0-81314-498-6.

Totalitarianism on Screen: The Art and Politics of The Lives of Others, edited by Carl Eric Scott and F. Flagg Taylor IV and published in 2014, offers a valuable collection of twelve “essays”1 in English about the 2006 German film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). The essays represent the work of a wide range of authors. Scholarly articles from academics in a variety of departments at American and British universities are strongly complemented by essays from prominent German voices like Wolf Biermann, Manfred Wilke, and Jens Gieseke. A highlight of the book is the transcription and translation of Paul Hockenos’s 29 September 2011 interview with Joachim Gauck, current President of Germany and Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records from 1990 to 2000.2

The Lives of Others, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut film, is the first popular feature film to take the all-pervasive surveillance apparatus of the East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi) as its central focus. The film was an immediate international success upon its release, receiving highest accolades from the film industry for its impressive artistry and highly accomplished acting. It counts among its many awards seven “Lolas” and the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Scott and Taylor, editors of Totalitarianism on Screen, echo these accolades in the introduction, writing: “It is our contention that The Lives of Others deserves a place as one of the truly great works of art touching on the phenomenon of communist totalitarianism” (3).

The introduction to the book provides a sound background to the film, general information about totalitarianism and the East German secret police, and the rationalization for a book dedicated to specifically this film as well as an overview of each article’s main thesis. As the title announces, the focus of the book is the representation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a totalitarian state, and citing Peter Grieder and Gary Bruce, the editors argue that everyday life of East German citizens cannot be viewed as separate from and unaffected by the GDR’s coercive surveillance apparatus.

The book’s twelve essays are grouped according to theme into five sections: “Truth and Dissent,” “Art and Politics,” “The Lives of Others and Other Films,” [End Page 494]The Lives of Others and the History of the GDR,” and “The Stasi in the GDR.” The essays by Wolf Biermann and Manfred Wilke were translated from German for this volume, making the authors’ work accessible to a wider audience, and the essays by Cantor, Scott, and Taylor were first published in shorter forms in Perspectives on Political Science. The fifth section of the book is dedicated to an abbreviated version of Jens Gieseke’s comprehensive essay about the structure and workings of the Stasi from 1950 to 1989. The information about the administrative structure and responsibilities of the Stasi is very valuable, but the deviation from the citation style used in the rest of the book as well as the fact that the essay does not connect the historical data about the Stasi to the portrayal of the organization in The Lives of Others unfortunately gives this last section the faint feeling of being “tacked on.”

Aside from Gieseke’s essay, the contributions deal directly with the film and the many debates that The Lives of Others has sparked, such as the film’s portrayal of Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler’s moral transformation, the appraisal of the leading female role as a weak character, and the authenticity of the film’s details. Timothy Garton Ash’s critique of the film’s authenticity and Anna Funder’s objections to the Stasi officer’s moral transformation are addressed in a number of the essays and, if the book is read cover to cover (which is not necessary, as each essay can stand alone), there is admittedly a bit of unavoidable repetition in the analysis of certain scenes and...