Faking Facts

My new book takes place partially in one of my favorite historical places--East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I read this amazingly interesting article called "The Stasi on Our Mind" by Timothy Garton Ash about how the East Germany portrayed in the movie The Lives of Others differs from East Germany as it actually was. If you're interested in that stuff, you should read the article (normally I can't stand to read a ten-page article on a computer screen, but I devoured every word) but, even if East German history isn't your thing, I think you might be interested in one of the big ideas that comes out of the article: Whether, as storytellers, we have the right to alter reality in the name of more efficient storytelling. 

Ash breaks down lots of minor inaccuracies from the film. One of those was around the outfits worn by members of the Stasi (East Germany's secret police). The film shows students at the Stasi university wearing casual clothes when they would've actually worn their official dress uniforms. The high-ranking officers, however, would not have had to wear the stiff gray dress uniform as the film depicts. The filmmakers probably knew they weren't being accurate (they had a historian on staff to ensure historical accuracy). So why make this kind of blunder? It was probably intentional.

"Cognitive scientists tell us that the repetition of words and images strengthens the synapses connecting the neurons in the neural circuits that compute, in our heads, the meaning of those words and images. With time, these mental associations become electrochemically hard-wired...the sight of Germans in Prussian gray, with long, shining leather boots, shrieks to our synapses: Nazis."

I call this look "Stasi chic".

That really made something click in my mind. Whether the filmmakers intended it or not, they took advantage of the fact that viewers make such associations unconsciously. No dialogue need be wasted telling us the Stasi are bad--the image of the uniform does it for us. So efficient as a storytelling device. And, regardless of the fact that it is a historical film, I don't think these minor inaccuracies undermine the film as a whole. 

The director after winning the Oscar. The best and derpiest Oscar pic ever.

The director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, said that he did take certain liberties with historical accuracy. He admitted that "if he had shown the Stasi cadets in uniform, no ordinary cinemagoer would have identified with them. But because he shows them (inaccurately) in student-type civilian dress...the viewer can identify with them and is drawn into the story."

The overall effect of the film is an entertaining, dramatized, and heightened version of the historical source material. Fiction is always a somewhat distorted mirror reflecting the real world. It probably shouldn't try to achieve complete accuracy because it will always fail compared to individuals' experiences.