It’s startling to think that fewer than 20 years ago, a supposedly civilized country called the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany) was actively spying on its own citizens with the sort of invasive technology usually reserved for James Bond. If they thought you were up to no good-or more likely, if someone had a political reason to see you fall-they’d send in the Stasi when you weren’t home to install microphones in your walls, search your belongings, and then listen to your personal conversations and private moments 24 hours a day. If you did something suspicious-or maybe not-a raid would tear up your house, even if you were entirely innocent. Citizens were not protected by law.

And so it goes in The Lives of Others, a German film that wowed audiences at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last winter. The tale of a Stasi agent who spies on a playwright and his girlfriend, it’s great cinema-full of intrigue, suspense, and a realistic take on the way it was back in the early 1980s.

More startling, though, is that with the passage of the PATRIOT Act in the post-9/11 United States, similar things are going on right now in our supposedly civilized country. Of course, we hope that America’s hidden cameras, implanted microphones, and secret agents are honed in on real bad guys and not just playwrights or free-thinking writers (gulp), but it’ll probably be at least another 20 years before we really know.

Which makes seeing The Lives of Others all the more imperative now. It screens on Wednesday, July 18, at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Watch your back.


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