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Drama on The Fall of the Wall and Communism

November 9, 2009

Two recent works stand out for me. If you haven’t seen it yet, get your hands on a copy of Von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others. It’s about a ruthless Stasi officer who must put a dissident playwright under total surveillance. What follows is one of the most compelling and moving character transformations I’ve ever seen.

The other is Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘N’ Roll. It’s not as good as Arcadia–Stoppard’s masterpiece–but like The Lives of Others, it’s so thematically rich and philosophically insightful, I insist you see it.  Max, a professor of Marxism at Cambridge, visits his former student, Jan, in Prague. It’s 1971 and Husak has tightened the screws. Max is having a bit of trouble dealing with a bout of cognitive dissonance. His theory doesn’t match communist practice. And then:

Max: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ What could be more simple, more rational, more beautiful? It was the right idea in the wrong conditions for fifty years and counting. A blip. Christ, we waited long enough for someone to have it.

Jan: A blip. Stalin killed more Russians than Hitler. Perhaps we aren’t good enough for this beautiful idea. This is the best we can do with it. Marx knew we couldn’t be trusted. First the dictatorship, till we learned to be good, then the utopia where a man can be a baker in the morning, a lawmaker in the afternoon and a poet in the evening. But we never learned to be good, so look at us. A one-legged man showed up at my school once. He waited outside the classroom. It turned out that the man with one leg had come to say good-bye to our teacher. Afterwards, the teacher explained to us his friend lost his leg in the war, so as a special favor he’d been given permission to go and live near his sister somewhere in north Bohemia. ‘You see,’ our teacher said, ‘how Communism looks after its war heroes.’ So I put my hand up. God, I must have been stupid. I really thought it would be interesting for them, so I said in England anyone could live anywhere they liked, even if they had two legs. My mother was questioned and she lost her job at the shoe factory, but the point is the other kids in the class. They thought I was telling travellers’s tales. They couldn’t grasp the idea of a country where someone, anyone, could decide to move to another town and just go there. Suppose everybody wanted to live in Bohemia when their job is in Moravia! How would such a society work?

I also found Tom Rob Smith’s two novels to be quite good. Child 44 is a cracking good read. And Ian McEwan’s The Innocent is a tight, dark thriller about a botched effort to dig a tunnel under the Soviet controlled section of Berlin. Any other suggestions?

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  6. Mike Gibson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 11:45 pm

    “I want to say ‘We can’t let that kind of thing happen ever again’ but I am not so naive.”

    Neither am I!

  7. Corey permalink
    November 9, 2009 8:48 pm

    I saw Rock & Roll at the Alley Theater in Houston earlier this year. An excellent play.

    When I was first starting out in the computer business in Canada 10-15 years ago I worked with several recent immigrants from Romania, Hungary and Serbia. I got a very good education in what communism was really like for smart technical people who couldn’t get out. Stoppard’s play really resonated with me. He was spot-on.

    How much of the decline of the Soviet Union was because of the steady stream of defections to the West? What would our society be like today if we had had all those brilliant, technologically well-educated and productive people from the other side of the wall working as productively as we all did in the West for fifty years?

    I want to say “We can’t let that kind of thing happen ever again” but I am not so naive.

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