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Saturday Night at the Movies: The Worst Best Movie
Live Not By Lies
It’s not a lie if you believe it. The immortal words of George Costanza – and the motto of modern film. There are many reasons Hollywood fell from grace since its Golden Age – the fall of the Production Code and the rise of Pauline Kael are leading contenders – yet whatever the cause, the end result is immediately identifiable: the nasty cinematic aftertaste of ideology. They’re not lying, not exactly. If you hooked writer and director to a polygraph, they would pass; the beliefs are sincere in their way. It’s just that their beliefs have all the solidity of tissue paper, and after they’ve had a good cry, they get it out of their system and move on seamlessly to their next love. They will argue today as passionately for the current war as they argued against the idea of war itself only yesterday – and with no intervening conversion, no road to Damascus moment, nothing but a change in the prevailing ideological winds. As Dostoevsky warned over a century ago, when you become possessed by ideology – that is, when you let pamphlets take over the place your heart ought to be – you lose your humanity. This sense that what you’re being shown isn’t truly human is what makes you roll your eyes at both the latest Indiana Jones installment and the long, long list of titles in the memory hole. “They don’t believe a word of this,” some voice inside tells you, “they’re just following Party orders.” For a long time, indeed, they were; yet even without a Politburo to boss them around, far too many of our filmmakers seem unable to rise above sophisticated pamphleteering.
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How to combat lies? With the truth. I’ve been writing lately about the best movies and the worst movies. I thought I should take the opportunity to warn you about the worst best movie of the century: The Lives of Others. Back in 2009, National Review deemed it the best conservative movie of the past 25 years, with William F Buckley Jr calling it the best he’d ever seen. That National Review doesn’t understand the enemy our country faces has been amply demonstrated elsewhere in the years since 2009, so it is instructive to return to this almost-great film and see where it goes wrong. I do recommend watching the movie. Much of it is so well done: it is a truly engrossing thriller about life under surveillance in Communist East Germany. It accurately depicts the intellectual, sexual, physical, and moral torture of life under totalitarianism – while at the same time perfectly capturing the bureaucratic dullness of the whole apparatus. The plot depends upon the soul of one of the secret policemen being touched by the beautiful humanity of the people he is surveilling. Overhearing their every conversation, he starts to sympathize with them, his conscience is awakened… will he dare to disobey orders and try to save them? Very exciting stuff, truly!
Where does the movie go wrong? It’s a lie. There was no shortage of secret police in East Germany, but, as that reviewer explains, “No Stasi man ever tried to save his victims.” She elaborates on the dangerous message the movie sends:
[The movie’s director writes], “More than anything else, The Lives of Others is a human drama about the ability of human beings to do the right thing, no matter how far they have gone down the wrong path.” This is an uplifting thought. But what is more likely to save us from going down the wrong path again is recognising how human beings can be trained and forced into faceless systems of oppression, in which conscience is extinguished.”
In other words, if your strategy to keep children from being routinely castrated relies primarily on the hope that the American Academy of Pediatrics will lose sleep over the pain they’re causing and finally relent, well, you may as well just sign your own kids up for transition now. Conscience has been extinguished. There’s nothing left but ideology now.
Don’t make feel-good anti-communist movies (Ninotchka, you’re hilarious, but I’m looking at you). Make true anti-communist movies, even if the truth hurts. Movies are powerful, and people will believe them, and one of the reasons we are playing defense is because even our ‘greatest’ movies, like The Lives of Others, hide the true nature of God’s enemies.
Let me propose an alternative, made by someone with hard-won personal experience of the matter. On the Waterfront, the greatest anti-communist movie ever made, does not end with the local bad guys finding their conscience. A movie about the real meaning of loyalty and betrayal, it is unflinchingly human and unflinchingly honest. It ends with the hero beaten near to death. Nobody said the battle is easy. But keep watching, and you’ll see how we get a happy ending – a true happy ending – after all. That movie, and not East German historical revisionism, shows us the way: one man, with God, is always a majority. Trust me and watch it – you’ll need it in the years to come!