The Lives of Others

Having delved into philsophy and science fiction yesterday, for today I'll post on the German film, "The Lives of Others," which won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, and which I saw last night. I'll return to "serious" law-related material no later than Monday, but for now another digression.

I'll start with a plug. I liked "The Departed" a great deal but there's really no comparison. "The Lives of Others" is a profound piece of filmmaking. And who should know more about movies than a professor of constitutional law? Now, a few observations, with an effort to avoid spoiling any important plot twists.

The story centers around the activities of Stasi, the feared East German secret police. It's hard not to see the film as a metaphor for something else. For one thing, most of the action occurs in the year 1984. This not-so-veiled reference to Orwell makes "The Lives of Others" seem like a universal tale of totalitarianism and what it does to people's spirit. It is that, but it's also about a distinct historical place and time.

With that disclaimer, I can't help thinking of the film as a kind of sobering lesson for the emerging cold war between the west and radical Islam. (Yes, this is the third cold war I've mentioned in the last few days. Here I'm glossing over what might be the cold war within Islam---between Sunni and Shia---which I discussed on Wednesday ). Jacques Chirac got a lot of bad press for saying that a nuclear-armed Iran would be no big deal because it would be subject to deterrence. Yet despite categorical statements by western politicians, and especially American and Israeli politicians about how it would be "unacceptable" for Iran to get the bomb, in fact, it appears that many in strategy circles assume that it is inevitable. And some, like Chirac, view this prospect as manageable, if distasteful. We can deter the use of nukes by Iran and whatever other nuclear-armed fundamentalist regimes emerge in much the same way that we deterred a Soveit attack during the original cold war, they argue. I think (or at least I damn well hope) that's right, but a portrait of the grimness of life under totalitarianism such as "The Lives of Others" stands as a reminder of the cost of such a strategy, even if it works.

More directly, I think, it underscores the tragedy of Iraq. Bush and the neocons were not wrong to despise Saddam's regime. Saddam openly admired Stalin and built a state very much along the East German model. Each day his regime persisted was a calamity. Of course, that doesn't mean the U.S. invasion was legally or even morally justified, especially given how badly we've botched the reconstruction job (which may well have been impossible from the start). But in this case, as in the cases of Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, the fact that we didn't have a good military option should not blind us to the cost for people living under the regimes or the understandable fact that those people would look to the west for help.

"The Lives of Others" strongly suggests that European Communism was doomed to implode because by the 1980s, almost no one believed in the system. The party became a shell for corruption and the few true believers in socialism became disaffected by the regime's venality and brutality. The same might have happened in Iraq eventually, although I don't want to minimize the price that would have been paid by those living under the system in the meantime, while waiting for Saddam to die or for a coup. Still, that said, what now appears likely to replace Saddam's Stalinism, at least in large parts of the country, is Islamic totalitarianism on the Iranian model. Whether that kind of regime will also be doomed to implosion remains to be seen. The periodic democracy boomlets in Iran in the years since the Revolution suggest that religion-based totalitarianism is no more lasting than other forms of totalitarianism. But I fear that the appeal to a Higher Power gives religious totalitarianism a degree of popular legitimacy that was lacking in the old eastern bloc, and thus gives it a greater durability. That is especially sobering when one realizes that it took 70 years for the Soviet Union to collapse under its own weight.

Even if I'm wrong about all of this, however, I still recommend the movie.