In the amusingly mis-named German Democratic Republic, during the last years before the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was re-unified, the people were monitored for idealogical and political purity by the Stasi, or Secret Police. Astonishingly, there were 90,000 officers in the Stasi and hundreds of thousands more were paid informants, keeping themselves out of jail or settling old scores. A deeply paranoid political élite learnt its philosophies and its practice from the Nazis they had overthrown and an ill-timed joke could see the end of a career or the start of a spell in solitary confinement.
The awfulness and absurdity of the situation is brilliantly painted in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s thriller The Lives of Others, the best Foreign Film Oscar-winner in years. Set in the late 1980’s, as even the most loyal of state servants and patriots are losing their faith, state-sanctioned playwright Dreyman, played by Sebastian Koch, is shaken by the suicide of his black-listed director, Jerska. He writes an article on suicide statistics in the GDR to be smuggled out to the West, not realising that his flat is being monitored 24/7 by the Stasi. Luckily, his main voyeur (Wiesler, a lovely performance by Ulrich Mühe) is having complex second thoughts of his own.