A while back MD and I went to see the German movie Lives of Others that recently garnered the Oscar for best foreign film (in fact, we saw the film the night before the lives_of_others.jpgOscars). I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since.
Lives of Others is without a doubt the best movie I’ve seen in several years. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is one of those movies that satisfies on multiple levels: one learns something of another culture, there is redemption, there is superb acting, and there is nail-biting suspense. It is the first film of a young German filmaker who conceived the entire premise after listening to a beautiful piece of music while doing his classwork. It is one of those brilliant movies that could never be made in America. In fact, anyone pitching the film in Hollywood would probably be thrown out on his ear.
The film revolves around a sort of menage de trois involving an East German playwright, his live-in girlfriend who happens to be the most famous stage actress in East Germany, and a nondescript bureaucrat bent on ruining anyone indulging in independent thinking. As the film makes clear, ruination at the hands of the East German government is a terminal event from which there is no chance of recovery.
Watching Lives of Others makes one realize how corrosive to the soul living in such a police state as East Germany must have been. No one knew who was spying on and informing on whom over what. Now that the files of the Stasi (the East German national police) are open, it has become a national pastime for people to pore through their files and find out who had been informing on them. Many long-term relationships have been destroyed over information contained in these files. This movie makes it easy to see how such things happened in the normal course of life there.
The movie made me think of F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, a difficult to read but infinitely rewarding book. Hayek lays out the path most free countries take to ultimately enslave themselves. The East Germans were enslaved instantly by the partitioning of Germany after the second World War, but the end result was the same.
(If you’re not familiar with Hayek’s book, here is a link to a cartoon version that is really pretty good.)
It would be difficult to sit through this movie without realizing what a great deal we have here in the United States. Sure, as a country we’ve got our warts and all, but compared to how it could be (and compared to how it was in East Germany just a few years ago) it is nirvana. Lives of Others has made me appreciate my life and the freedoms that I take for granted immeasurably. Go see this film.
Here is an excerpt from the best review I’ve seen yet. Read the entire review here.

But even though The Lives of Others is set primarily in 1984, it’s not 1984. This is not a morality play about East Germany, or a fictional catalogue of the horrors of life under communism. It’s a character study in the guise of a stunning suspense thriller. When the rigorously correct Stasi man Wiesler begins to go off the reservation, it’s impossible to determine his motivation and therefore impossible to know what he’s going to do next, or why. As the playwright Dreyman begins to take creative and political risks for the first time in his life, his fate is entirely in Wiesler’s hands–and like the culture minister who started the investigation, Wiesler is besotted by the playwright’s beautiful and talented girlfriend.
Donnersmarck’s work is so fresh and so original in part because he is working with a great, rich, infinitely absorbing subject–a subject other filmmakers across the world continue to avoid like the plague. This is strange. Life under communism would seem to be among the least controversial topics one could imagine. After all, who outside of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle actually longs for a restoration of the Soviet Empire? But you can count on two hands and a foot the number of major motion pictures made since the dissolution of the Soviet Union that have attempted any kind of reckoning of the human cost of communism in the 20th century.
Among the cultural cognoscenti across the world, there seems to be a hunger to let this subject simply slide down the rabbit hole. Donnersmarck found it difficult to secure financing for The Lives of Others, which cost a negligible $2 million to make. And the organizers of the Berlin Film Festival refused to accept it as an official entry in 2006–a decision that, in sheer aesthetic terms, has to be reckoned among the most perverse I’ve ever heard about. Once released, it made a sensation in Germany and is among the most successful films ever released there. That’s not surprising. There are few German films since the fall of the Weimar Republic that come anywhere near The Lives of Others.


  1. I am retired Air Force. I was in Germany for 4 1/2 years. During that time I went shopping in East Berlin. It was the only place we were allowed and we had to travel in uniform on a specified road. No detours allowd. It was quite an experience seeing how they lived and how little they had compared to the rest of the world. My last trip to East Berlin came a week after the wall started coming down, it was totally amazing driving through the checkpoint and seeing the people hammering at that wall with what ever they had available, in some cases just there bare hands.It was an experience that can simply not be put into words and one I will never forget.
    Hi Tess–
    Thanks for the on-the-scene report.

  2. Sir i have a very good pal who lives in Zim.
    They have a pretty good job but they are paranoid about using work or personal email or mail ordinaire simply as know one knows who is or might be spying for the ruling ZanuPF party.
    And folks will always vote with their feet or in boats to get to warts n all Lib democs as bad as we often ungratfeul Westerners suggest they are.
    Now come on you and Atkins..lets have a blow by blow a/c.
    There might even be a film in that!
    Hi Simon–
    I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for my Atkins tell all.  I’ll have to be in the right frame of mind.

  3. I will have to check it out. By the way, what do you think of the Optimal Diet by Jan Kwasniewski? He encourages people to eat lots of animal fat and to keep their P:F:C ratio to 1:2.5-3.5:0.8. Apparantly he has been able to cure MS, diabetes, asthma and a host of other illnesses.
    Hi Luke–
    I’m familiar with the basics of the Optimal Diet although I’ve never actually seen the book.  (There is a book, right?)

  4. Hello, Dr. Eades,
    I just received (and read in one sitting) your book Protein Power. I’m anxiously waiting for Protein Power Lifeplan to arrive in the mail. Great stuff!!
    As I processed the information regarding the importance of dietary intervention to prevent/reverse insulin resistance, my thoughts turned to a study I read recently in the J Physiol 554.3, pp 595-607. The title is: “Insulin Resistance and Elevated Triglyceride in Muscle: More Important for Survival than ‘Thrifty’ Genes?”
    The authors state that elevated intramyocellular triglyceride (IMTG) is strongly associated with insulin resistance. The authors “consider the modern athlete as the physiological archetype of the Late Paleolithic hunter-gatherer”, basically theirs was a normal phenotype and sedentary modern man’s is abnormal. Quite a profound thought when we typically consider athletes to be above the norm.
    Essentially the study compares the IMTG in modern athletes who are fasted/carb restricted and obese individuals, and why they would share the same trait. The athletes become temporarily insulin resistant during periods of fasting/carb restriction. If I understand it correctly, the authors postulate that elevated IMTG in a hungry hunter-gatherer/modern athlete, and a corresponding muscle insulin resistance, spares blood glucose (from being shuttled into muscle tissue) “for use by the brain and other glucose-dependent tissues when liver glycogen stores are depleted.” This process allows the IMTG to be used as the alternative fuel source during periods of starvation. Basically a survival mechanism, I guess.
    In their concluding paragraph the authors contend “Perhaps the only non-pharmacological solution to prevent muscle insulin resistance is to engage in chronic physical activity and improve the capacity of the musculature to utilize fatty acids. In doing so modern man would regain the ‘normal’ physiology of our hunter-gatherer ancestors in the same way as the modern athlete and express the phenotype as it has evolved to be.”
    I just wondered what your thoughts are regarding the study’s final paragraph regarding “the only non-pharmacological solution to prevent muscle insulin resistance”. (I have read elsewhere that acute bouts of muscular exertion do tend to increase insulin sensitivity.) The study didn’t really look at diet, just exercise. Anyway, food for thought. As always, many thanks for your service.
    Hi Thomas–
    I read this paper when it came out a few years back.  It’s sort of a little different take on the first paper like this published 10 years or so ago in Diabetologia called the Carnivore Connection.  That paper postulated that man’s primate ancestors ate a lot of carbohydrate, but then man evolved and ate a diet low in carbohydrate.  The only way for the body to get the glucose it needed, so the article proposed, was to become insulin resistant so that insulin didn’t drive all the carbohydrate into the cells and let levels in the blood fall to dangerous levels.  The fly in the ointment of this argument, I think, is that as long as one eats plenty of protein, there is plenty of substrate for the body to use to make glucose so there is no need to become insulin resistant.
    The authors of the paper you reference are correct in pointing out that fatty acids in the cells are one of the causes of insulin resistance.  And that exercise can reduce the intramuscular fat and the intracellular fat as well.  If there is no intracellular fat, so they say, insulin resistance goes away.  True, but exercise isn’t the only way to get rid of this fat.  Diet, especially a low-carb diet, will do it just as well if not better.
    I’ve tested many, many patients after they’ve gone on low-carb diets and they all become less, not more, insulin resistant.
    Hope this helps. 

  5. I forgot to include in the previous the reason for the the IMTG: the IMTG was concluded to be used as fuel for the muscular exertions of hunting or predation resistance while in a fasted state. In other words, intramuscular fat was what powered the hunter-gatherer’s muscles while he was getting his groceries (or avoiding becoming someone else’s groceries) while is was in a basically food-deprived state. Sorry.

  6. Hi Mike–thanks for the heads up–I’m a foreign movie buff and this one’s at the top of my to-see list. I agree we have much to be thankful for in America–we’re not perfect, but we are a country with a conscience and at least we have ideals we try to live up to (and which most countries don’t even pretend to have).
    Hi Paul–
    My sentiments exactly. Let me know what you think of the film.

  7. Dr. Mike:
    Glad you pointed this out to us, much appreciated.
    I have a very large family in several former soviet occupied countries and you can’t possibly know what it was like to live there. The sheer stress of day to day life would have killed me and I hold a profound respect for them all even those who turned to alcohol to deal with those inhuman conditions.
    However, it was the UK, the USA and Canada who forever helped them all by broadcasting through Radio Free USA, Canada and the UK. When I visited my relatives in 1989 they told me that every spare moment in the evenings and at night was in searching the air waves for any information from abroad. Hope never died and what else did they have to sustain them?
    Hi Hellistile–

    Thanks for the comment.  I’m glad your family is finally out from under the shackles.  After seeing Lives of Others, I can’t imagine what it would be like to live such lives.  It’s incomprehensible to people who have grown up free.  That was the wonderful thing about the movie, it allowed someone who has grown up free to truly be able to understand the hellish circumstances under which so many people lived for so many years.

  8. As a person who came to the US under refugee status from communist Cuba, it’s no surprise to me that there are no films made on this subject. People are still too close to what happened. They want to look to the future and not look at a painful past.
    Since Cuban communism is ongoing, it’s very difficult even after 45 years, for people of a certain generation to speak about Castro without dissolving into emotionalism. The most annoying thing that comes from these conversations is the “why us god, why?” attitude. My relatives don’t want to see their own complicity–it’s better to blame god.
    There is no hardheaded look at what led up to it, how it was allowed to come to power, or how the upper class was complicit in how it happened–when the upper class of any culture leads a corrupt life while it ignores the suffering of the lower class, it always does so at its own peril.
    This is one of the major reasons by the way, that I find libertarianism is untenable. It was the laissez faire attitude of the Cuban upper class that helped bring about their downfall.
    Hi LC–
    Thanks for the commentary. I have only one comment in return. I don’t think Libertarianism had anything to do with the takeover. It was probably more of an it-could-never-happen-here, we’re-too-complacent scenario, which has nothing to do with Libertarianism. In fact, I think a truly Libertarian society would probably be the most difficult for a dictator to take over.

  9. I live in Slovakia, former socialist country. Haven’t seen the film, but have my own memory. It was not very bad for average Joe to live here (“food and games” in work). You’ve got cheep food (but have to buy it early in the morning or you would be only looking at empty store), everyone got new flat for free when they got married or employed (if you had close relative in bureau or money to bribe, you didn’t have to wait 5-10 years to really got it), everyone had job (who had not was put into jail for “being a parasite”) and “freedom of speech” (but not freedom after speech), etc. etc …
    I just feel very sad that people here have short memory and most of them actually want socialism to come back. And it slowly creeps in as European Union superstate. 🙁
    Hi Martin–
    Thanks for the comment.  It’s too bad that the people have such short memories and that a little adversity is driving them back into a Socialistic state.  Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers, said long ago:

    Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.

    How true that statement is. We’re experiencing a little of it here in the US with the rush to demand protection from another terrorist attack.  People are willing to jettison freedoms right and left, and once jettisoned, they’re virtually impossible to get back.

    Good luck.

  10. If there could possibly be a Libertarian society without an army, I might agree. But it was the lack of real infrastructure that allowed Castro, with only a handful of men, to take over the army. When you have a society with no checks and balances, no social structures that could be utilized by the opposition to resist someone like Castro, you end up just like Cuba did.
    Libertarianism depends on a very high moral threshold. Human beings just don’t have such a threshold right now. It presumes that successful libertarians won’t do things to harm others. Study the robber barons of the nineteenth century and how they colluded to jack up the railroad prices so high, that people couldn’t transport their goods and lost their shirts. Entire towns went under, and the robbers didn’t care. This was before the regulation of the railroad industry, which came about because of this behavior.
    Presently, the airlines were deregulated and allowed to police themselves–they have done such a piss poor job, that both investors and former execs are calling for re regulation.
    Ayn Rand came from a communist country where the state was the economy. When she encountered capitalism, she made the mistake of thinking it could replace the state. It’s just the nonsense of communism in reverse-capitalism can no more replace a government than communism can replace an economy.
    Hi LC–
    As you can see, regulation of the railroad industry has done it a lot of good.
    The people you mention who want the airlines regulated are all the people who stand to make money if competition is limited and prices are fixed.  Many of the larger, older airlines – United, American, Delta, Northwest, etc – are hidebound and stuck in their old ways.  They keep doing the same old things and getting the same results while watching their bottom lines deteriorate.  The newer airlines – Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic – are kicking the old airlines butts with innovation and price competition, and the old guys don’t like it.  They don’t want to change, they want to make more money, so they’re screaming for more regulation.  A sad state of affairs, as far as I’m concerned.
    Too many people equate an economic system with a political system.  Certain economic systems – communism, for example – are so lousy that the only way they can be maintained is through a regime such as used to be in place in the USSR and East Germany.
    There are a number of subtypes of Libertarianism.  I prefer the FA Hayek version, in which taxes are raised and used for, among other things, the common defense.  Having a strong military is not incompatible with Libertarianism as I view it.
    The best description I’ve ever read of a political system as I would like to see it is in the last and brilliant chapter of Andrew Sullivan’s book The Conservative Soul.

  11. Regarding “robber barons” – the reason that the railroads were able to do what they did is that they colluded with the government, which is not libertarianism or the free market. The government paid them a certain amount per mile to build railroads, so they took the most expensive route possible, without respect to the consequences.
    Compare the robber barons with James J. Hill who built the Great Northern Railway without taking any public money. He brought progress and business to many communities along his route. He also built a more direct route, because he wasn’t being paid by the mile.
    During the depression of the late 19th Century, Hill stayed in business while the government-funded railroads went bankrupt.
    You’ll find with most of the “robber baron” stories that they came about by getting the government in their pockets, and vice-versa, which is the antithesis of the free market.

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