It’s rare in this day and age that films move us to tears. With movies like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and High School Musical 3 topping the charts, the majority of American films do little to affect us.
I recently saw The Lives of Others, a German film about the strict monitoring of the East German cultural scene by 91,000 Stasi employees and their 300,000 citizen informants.
The Stasi were the East German secret police who used extreme forms of interrogation against people they thought were “enemies of the state.” They had state-of-the-art prison facilities that used bizarre and inhumane tactics. And due to the paranoia of top officials, the Stasi wiretapped and monitored thousands of its citizens. Any of this sound familiar? Now, please don’t think I’m saying America is like the communist oppressed East Germany of the late ’80’s, because for obvious reasons it’s not. But the similarities are there and it’s hard not to make a connection.
The film focuses on a Stasi captain who is assigned to monitor a prominent playwright, with the intention of finding something that will put him away. Instead, the captain is forced to act on what he considers morally right versus what the state deems to be right. Ultimately, a writer tells the country of the abuse of power at the highest levels through an anonymous letter to a popular magazine. The film shows the influence artists had and how a few power-hungry leaders were afraid it could all change with the stroke of a brush, the scribble of a word, the playing of a note, or the performance of a scene.
It’s easy for artists to lose sight of what we actually do. We’re so busy trying to be seen and heard, and trying to make a living at what we do, that we forget we’re endowed with the ability to document our culture. We write the poetry of our generation and the literature that can change lives.
I don’t mean to slap on the pressure. That is an awful lot to live up to. But it is something we should occasionally keep in mind.
We don’t know if the things we write will change the world. With every short story and poem, we hope to reach someone. It’s doubtful anything we write will have such a large impact that it kicks the legs out from under an entire government.
But it’s always worth a try.