One of the best films I have ever seen is a 2006 German drama titled, “Das Leben der Anderen” – or, in English, “The Lives of Others.”
It’s a spy film, but in every way an unconventional one. Essentially it depicts life in East Germany under Communism, where everyone seemed to be spying on everyone else – especially but not exclusively the Stasi, or East German secret police. It reveals subtly and sensitively how the personal and political, the social and sexual can get inextricably entwined when listening in on the lives of others is the rule, not the exception.
Nearly a quarter century has passed since the fall of the (Berlin) wall, since communism collapsed and East Germany with it. But even today not a single German of a certain age – whether born in East Germany or West – has forgotten what life was like in East Germany when it was a Soviet satellite.
So when German Chancellor Angela Merkel calls President Barack Obama to complain that her cell phone was tapped, her private line, she is not only expressing disgruntlement at the digital invasion. She is bringing to the conversation a lifetime of learning how oppressive is the extreme violation of personal privacy by a political entity.
Merkel was born in East Germany when it was still under Communist rule. So she knows from experience how fine the line between spying as absolutely necessary to state security, and spying as a habit gone haywire.