Screen heroes under totalitarian rule

Totalitarianism is a political system in which the state holds total authority over society and seeks to control all aspects of public and private life where necessary. It is an appalling political system to live under, and yet its exploration and depiction in film can make for great cinema. Why? Because, from a dramatic standpoint, there is nothing better than pitting a decent, lone hero against a cruel, uniform power. At first the latter seems unbreakable, on account of the sheer extent of its cruelty, yet slowly, the former’s courage and persistence exposes its cracks, until finally the power breaks under the sheer weight of the hero’s righteousness.

Two films that powerfully portray this struggle, of a good man opposing a bad system, are Burnt by the Sun and The Lives of Others. Both do so, not in the often improbable Hollywood vein of the hero suddenly being in possession of a special set of skills which means he can defeat the cruel system single-handedly, but rather in the spirit of knowing what it really is to live under such a regime, where the individual is made utterly subservient and resistance can only be expressed in the seemingly smallest of actions, be this refusing to give a confession or deliberately obstructing an investigation. One is from the Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, who lived under Soviet Communism, the other from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose parents lived under East German Communism.

The former’s protagonist, Colonel Kotov, an old Bolshevik war hero, is hunted down by his wife’s ex-lover, an NKVD agent intent on having him confess that he is a terrorist who wanted to murder Stalin. The latter’s protagonist is Gerd Weisler, a secret Stasi officer who is assigned by his superior to spy on a prominent playwright, also a suspected critic of the regime, only to discover that the real reason he has been assigned the case is because one of the regime’s leaders covets the playwright’s girlfriend and wants her for himself.

Kotov, unlike his nemesis Dmitrii, refuses to let his dignity and humanity be taken from him. He loves his young wife and daughter to the very end, and even when confronted by Stalin’s assassins, who beat him half to death in the back of a government car, refuses to confess to a crime he did not commit. Likewise, Weisler, when he realizes how deeply in love the playwright Georg Dreyman and his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland are, obstructs his own investigation to ensure that Dreyman is not found guilty, though he knows that this will result in him being consigned to Department M for the rest of his working life, a miserable place for disgraced agents, which he subsequently is.

Both men are heroes because both are willing to be burnt by the regimes they live under, to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Kotov resists the lies of Stalinism, and Weisler, the German Democratic Republic. Their actions, seemingly small, are in fact great. Screen heroes such as these are the real heroes of film.

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