ACLU sponsors ‘Lives of Others’ showing

Ulrich Mühe plays an East German Stasi officer in "The Lives of Others."

Ulrich Mühe plays an East German Stasi officer in “The Lives of Others.”

When the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana was planning a film and discussion for tonight, the major concern for this year appeared to be criminal justice.

But with the election of President Donald Trump in November, the ACLU’s list of concerns quickly expanded to include increased attention to immigration rights, voting rights and rights of the LGBT community.

“It is an amazing time,” said Mary Hernandez, a Billings resident who is on the executive committee of the national board of directors of the ACLU. She added, “We really have to pay attention to what’s happening on any given day.”

But if Trump’s election has brought new challenges to the ACLU, it also has brought new support.

On the weekend after Trump signed an executive order banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, the national ACLU received $24 million in new donations, Hernandez said. Since the election, $75 million has come in, and the ACLU now has more than a million members nationwide.

The election also may have sparked increased interest in tonight’s film showing and discussion. A reception with light refreshments and no-host beer and wine begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Art House Cinema and Pub, 109 N. 30th St. At 6 p.m. is a showing of “The Lives of Others,” winner of the 2006 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film. A discussion of issues raised by the film follows.

“The Lives of Others,” fittingly set in 1984, tells the story of an East German playwright (Sebastian Koch) under surveillance by the Stasi, the East German Ministry for State Security. Ulrich Mühe stars as a Stasi captain who slowly realizes that the surveillance is aimed not at protecting security but at separating the playwright from his lover (Martina Gedeck), who is coveted by the state’s minister of culture.

German poster for "The Lives of Others."

German poster for “The Lives of Others.”

Hernandez noted that although East German surveillance was pervasive, it was relatively unsophisticated by today’s standards. Protecting privacy and liberty both from the government and from intrusive business practices has become a growing challenge around the world.

“The Lives of Others,” which had a brief run in Billings upon its release, may be the best in a series of German films in recent years exploring the nation’s troubled past. Germany was a pioneer in film, with well-regarded works by such early directors as Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, G.W. Pabst, F.W. Murnau and Billy Wilder, among many others.

But a long fallow period followed two catastrophic world wars and years of repression under the Nazi and Soviet regimes. By the late 1960 and early ’70s, Germany was best known for such soft-core pornography series as the School Girls Report.

The late 20th and the 21st century have led to a revival in German film, particularly movies dealing with Germany’s past. Many of the films feature characters who, like Mühe, are required to convey emotion while remaining outwardly expressionless.

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“Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” is based on recovered documents about the arrest, trial and execution of an anti-Nazi activist during World War II. Not only does Scholl (Julia Jentsch) have to hide her emotions as she undergoes probing interrogation, but her interrogator (Alexander Held) has to keep an impassive face as she makes allegations about concentration camps and war crimes that he must know, or at least suspect, are true.

“The Counterfeiters” stars Karl Markovics as part of a team of concentration camp inmates that Nazi Germany used during World War II to falsify British and American currency. The counterfeiters risk their lives to sabotage the project, all while pretending nothing is amiss and that they are indifferent to the atrocities going on around them.

“Labyrinth of Lies” deals with German reluctance to face up to Nazi crimes in the aftermath of World War II. A team of lawyers (represented in the film largely by Johann Radmann) begins tracking down war criminals only to increasingly conclude that all Germans were to some degree responsible.

Only in “Downfall,” an account of the final days of World War II in Adolph Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, is the lead character free to fully display his emotions. That character is, of course, Hitler himself, brilliantly played by Bruno Ganz in a film that has been parodied dozens of times on YouTube.

Other films have taken a lighter touch. In the widely successful “Goodbye, Lenin,” a devoted son (Daniel Brühl) tries to create for his ill mother the socialist paradise that never materialized in East Germany. In “Friendship!” two East Germans newly free to visit America are stopped at customs in New York, where one inspector denigrates them as Nazis.

“No, we’re not Nazis,” they innocently reply. “We’re communists.”

Some critics have claimed that “The Lives of Others” paints too benign a picture of the Stasi, as portrayed by Mühe. But Mühe plays a true believer in socialism, one who is as critical of corrupt government officials as of disloyal citizens. When the values of his government conflict with the values he has been trained to uphold, he finds himself in a moral quandary.

In one chilling scene, Mühe is on an elevator with a small child who unintentionally makes incriminating remarks about his parents. Mühe starts to ask for the parents’ name, then pulls back, unwilling to open another dark door into his country’s soul.

In another scene, a Stasi worker unwittingly makes a joke about East German leader Erich Honecker in the presence of a superior. The superior laughs it off, and tells a joke of his own, but the chill never thaws and we see late in the film how the joke teller is punished.

Such quiet calculations abound in “The Lives of Others,” a film in which characters constantly struggle against their perceived obligations to their own safety, to their loved ones, to their country and to ethical principle.

That delicate balance may make the film the perfect choice for the ACLU-sponsored discussion of privacy and liberty in the United States. While the ACLU itself often has been criticized for its support of left-leaning causes, Hernandez noted that it stands ready to defend the constitutional rights of even its worst critics.

“The ACLU is working across party lines every day,” she said. She pointed out that one of the founders of the ACLU was Jeannette Rankin, a former congresswoman from Montana.

While the ACLU plays a prominent role in civil liberties litigation, it actually has only about 300 attorneys across the nation working on cases, Hernandez said. In times of crisis, such as in the rush to represent people detained at airports following the executive order on immigration, it relies heavily on volunteers.

The influx of volunteers following Trump’s election poses new challenges for the ACLU board, Hernandez said. The national board is working on plans to engage those volunteers, including putting them to work on issues to head off bad policies before litigation is required.

“We’re not all just about suing,” she said.

In Montana, the ACLU is working on plans for another event on March 12, called People Power, part of a national effort to organize resistance to legal abuses of the Trump administration. An ACLU staff member, SK Rossi, is monitoring the legislative session in Helena. Reproductive rights of women, LGBT rights and voter suppression, especially on Indian reservations, are among top issues.

The vitriol that surrounded the November election has awakened a lot of people to potential threats to freedom and privacy, she said.

“We have to be diligent in verbalizing and reminding folks of how easy it is to infringe on people’s liberties,” she said.

Hernandez, who also is interim general manager of Yellowstone Public Radio, said she also is following proposals to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She said she won’t worry until the matter goes to appropriations. She suggested that those interested in following the issue go to protectmypublicmedia.org.

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