What would you do for a Klondike bar? My answer, not much I don’t think they’re that great. It’s safe to say you’ve pondered that goofy question at least once. It represents the silliest of human quandaries but still a significant one. What would Jesus do? Now we’re in the territory of morality and attempting to emulate an unknown high power, if that is what you believe in.
The Stasi is the secret police force of the German Democratic Republic. One third of the population of East Germany was under surveillance by the nearly 90,000 officers. In order to meet the party’s expectations, individuality had to be eliminated to control the population. Naturally, the main targets were artists. You are an artist.
Would you sell yourself for art? Not in the free country of the United States in 2016, but rather 1984 East Berlin as it’s controlled by the Socialist German Democratic Republic. As an artist myself it’s hard to think of such an extreme. I’ve never been faced with the question in the conditions posed by the film THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006). The closest you can come to that in modern day America is the term “sell-out.”
Let’s try to get into the head of an artist in 1984 East Berlin:
More specifically, you are a young actress involved with a dashing, clever, communist playwright. You are at the top of your game, staring in his fresh new play. Then the Minister of Culture takes an interest in you, not in a flattering, respectful manner but preys upon your vulnerability as a struggling artist. The survival of your career depends on whether you give into his unwanted advances. He is determined to destroy the career of your playwright boyfriend in order to secure his “relationship” with you.
The easy and respectable answer to “Would you sell yourself for your art?” would be “Of course not.” You would vehemently preserve it all costs and die protecting its integrity. THE LIVES OF OTHERS, depicts a realistic and complex human struggle behind what motivates our emotions and actions under certain “extreme” circumstances.
Christa-Maria Sieland, the actress and her playwright boyfriend, George Dryman, are put under full survellience by the officer Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler. Wiesler decides to pretend to be a fan of Christa’s when he sees her in a bar. Christa-Maria presses him, “So you know her well, this Christa-Maria Sieland. What do you think – would she hurt someone who loves her above all else? Would she sell herself for art?” Wiesler, concerned by her self-deprecating behavior, assures her, “For art? You already have art. That’d be a bad deal. You are a great artist. Don’t you know that?”
At this point, Wiesler isn’t privy to the severity of Christa-Maria’s plight. She has a drug addiction and must be willing to jeopardize a relationship with her boyfriend to save her career. She rejects the advances of the Prime Minster of Culture but is still plagued with having to play the government’s games to continue being an actress.
Both are painful to lose but ultimately she becomes an informant and betrays her boyfriend. Would I do the same? Yes.
Art and love can equally produce a weightless sensation of euphoria. They both synchronize with the innate human desire of freedom. However, in terms of guaranteed longevity, art is the most secure source of happiness.
At first I was offended by Christa-Maria’s decision to turn in her beloved George for the sake of her acting career. It seems selfish when you think of it as a “career”, but it’s not. Christa-Maria is choosing her freedom over her boyfriend’s. But if she loves him shouldn’t his feelings matter above hers? This “I would die for you” Shakespearean love anthem doesn’t apply here.
Here’s why: Being in love with someone is depending on another person whose actions are out of your control. I was madly in love with a guy who made me both insanely happy and incredibly free from worry. Then out of nowhere he cut himself off from me completely. Just like that. No warning, goodbye, explanation, nothing. I had the most difficult time reconciling how a person could bring me so much happiness and just take it away without my permission. That’s love folks.
Art, although not always easy, can take complex irrational emotions and funnel them into sophisticated expressions of human vulnerability. You can depend on art for happiness and it won’t run away when things get difficult or too real. On the contrary, you can use it to gain a greater understanding of why you feel a certain way or just simply release the burden of your feelings.
Sure, Christa-Maria can and did run into the arms of George when she felt overwhelmed or distraught but what if he decides to change the way he feels? What does she do then?
Even the guy I was depending on for my happiness warned me. He said, “If I leave you tomorrow, you won’t be upset right? Because the only person you should depend on for happiness is you.” He was right. From that day forward I made certain that art would be the constant source of happiness for the sake of my well-being. Not just one person.
Christa-Maria had to do the same.
There is still a larger question posed by THE LIVES OF OTHERS. Choosing art over love is only part of it. By relying on the government to practice your art, are you sacrificing the integrity of your art or just surviving?