Stasiland: films, TV and books about divided Germany

The period of history where there was an East and West Germany (or the GDR and FRG) is one of the most interesting episodes in Western history. 

Germany was a fascinating place in the 20th century. If you consider that if you had been born in East Berlin in 1910 and lived to the age of 80 you would have seen two world wars as well as five forms of government – monarchy, democracy, facist dictatorship, communist dictatorship, and back to democracy again – it is small wonder that it is such rich ground for entertainment.

But it’s the period 49-90 – when East Germany was part of the Soviet Bloc – that has always interested me the most. A country torn apart, families separated, the Berlin Wall, national shame, Nazi hunters, secret police, communist parades, student revolutions, cosmonauts and concrete high-rises – there is no shortage of themes and visuals for directors, actors, and authors to explore.

This is in no way a complete list of titles on the topic but it will give you a start if you’re interested. I am always looking for more and would appreciate recommendations. 

Films

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) – 2006

This is where this blog might be a bit captain obvious (as it did win an Oscar) but The Lives of Others is the first on this list that I came across and really sparked my interest in the period. It’s actually one of my favourite films and my recommended go-to for that annoying friend who says they “don’t like films with subtitles”. 

Focusing on a Stasi agent (East German secret police) as he investigates a writer and his girlfriend, The Lives of Others is packed full of human drama framed against the sheer, terrifying scope of surveillance in East Germany. A fictional story, absolutely steeped in historical fact, it is also a great thriller and contains one of my favourite scenes of all time. I won’t spoil it, but it takes place in a bar.

Ulrich Mühe trying out noise-cancelling headphones in The Lives of Others

Good Bye Lenin! – 2003

Next up after you’ve shown your obnoxious friend The Lives of Others and they’ve cried. Now you say “do you want to watch a funny foreign language film”. “Films with subtitles can’t be funny,” they say. Hello, Good Bye Lenin!

The synopsis reads something like this: a young Daniel Brühl has to go to extraordinary lengths to keep his hardline-communist mother from finding out that the Berlin Wall came down while she was in a coma, and her beloved East Germany no longer exists. It’s an absurdist premise that delivers laughs as the protagonist scrambles to replicate and preserve the GDR in his mother’s flat. But the absurdity is equally matched by an up-close look at a society that was changed overnight – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Good Bye Lenin! makes a strange companion piece to The Lives of Others, and not just because the latter is pretty much the opposite to a barrel of laughs. While The Lives of Others is pointed directly at the horror of the Stasi and the Eastern bloc, Good Bye Lenin! is often associated with a nostalgic (and some would say idealistic) view of the GDR, and what was lost when it came down. Watching the two films together is probably the way to do it because nothing has ever been wholly “good” or wholly “bad”.

Daniel Brühl and Chulpan Khamatova relax in their every-day clothes in Good Bye Lenin!

Not recommended:

The Baader Meinhof Complex (Der Baader Meinhof Komplex) – 2008

This is a biopic about the Baader-Meinhof group (also known as the Red Army Faction), who were a militant gang active in West Germany from the ’70s up to the 2000s. Named after two of the founding members, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, this radical group – known as a terrorist organisation – carried out bombings, assassinations, bank robberies and kidnappings. 

I know what you’re thinking – this sounds like the best yet. It is a fascinating chapter in the history of divided Germany. Unfortunately, slavishly tied to depicting historical events in chronological order and minute detail, the film casts aside any kind of dramatic structure or artistic flare. If you are really interested in watching a reenactment of all of the acts a terrorist group committed one after the other, this could be for you. Otherwise, I’d give it a pass and find a good documentary on it instead.

A busy day at work for the Baader-Meinhof group

TV

Deutschland 83 – 2015

I haven’t found a huge amount of TV on this, so would especially appreciate recommendations, but when Deutschland 83 hit Channel 4 my ears immediately pricked up. Now your ignorant friend has made it through a couple of films, they’re surely ready for a German-language, eight episode series.

The story is of a Stasi spy sent from East to West to gather intel. As a TV show, and due to the spy-thriller subject, this is a far more narrative led than TLOO and GBL! and maybe has a bit less to say than those critically-acclaimed classics. But it does dig into the same themes, shares the “aesthetic” (which is a word that I think applies to Germany in this period more than any other time and place), and brings a lot of nail-biting entertainment.

Jonas Nay forgets what he came to the shops for in Deutschland 83

I’ve noticed in writing this that Deutschland 86 was released in 2018 somehow under my radar…I haven’t seen it so I can’t recommend it but I can say that I will be bingeing it this week. The entire box set for both is on All 4.

Books

Stasiland by Anna Funder

If you’ve now watched The Lives of Others, are (understandably) shocked by what you saw, and want to know if the Stasi really did interfere in people’s lives on that scale – Stasiland is the book for you. Spoiler: they did. Funder’s work of nonfiction not only features accounts from the victims of state surveillance but also the perpetrators – actual Stasi who describe their work and how they try to reconcile it with their lives post-GDR. It is a fascinating look at the function and impact of a totalitarianism at work.

The Leipzig Affair by Fiona Rintoul

The cold war is a classic setting for a thriller so you won’t be surprised to be recommended another one. Like Deutschland 83, The Leipzig Affair isn’t as concerned with exploring the experience of living in a communist state as it is in creating a compelling thriller but this is definitely one I would recommend. The novel’s protagonist is a Scottish exchange student to East Germany who finds himself embroiled with a student that is trying to flee to the west. Probably lesser-known that the other titles on here, Rintoul’s story and characters feel deeply authentic, which elevates this novel beyond the typical mystery.

Not recommended:

The Innocent by Ian McEwan

This is one of the first books I found when I did my own Google search for novels set in Germany post-WW2 many years ago, and is the most disappointing. I’ll admit, The Innocent is the only McEwan I’ve read, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that this is maybe an outlier. But, I disliked this for exactly the same reason I disliked the film Atonement – I don’t think a surprise twist at the end makes up for having to sit through the first 95 percent of tedium. Like The Leipzig Affair, this is also a thriller set in Germany during the cold war. Unlike, The Leipzig Affair, neither its characters or setting seem at all authentic and it doesn’t tap into any of the interesting themes covered by everything else on this list. Honestly, it’s a feat to write a book this plain in a period so interesting. Do avoid.

Do you have any tips on what to read or watch next? Please comment or share on your social medium of choice! @Shoot_thePoets

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