The Danger of Oppression: An Analysis of the Portrayal of Oppressive Government in Film

Paper by Kaija Schoeld.

Films such as The Lives of Others, Timbuktu, and V for Vendetta focus on an oppressive relationship between individual and state to warn modern day governments of the danger of too much power. Specifically, this warning is portrayed in these films through the character development of both the individual [protagonist] and state [antagonist]. Through an in-depth analysis of these three film’s scenes, use of character development, and political messages it will be apparent that these films were made as a warning to show the danger of an oppressive government. It is important to recognize these films as a warning in order to prevent governments from adapting this oppressive system that is shown to be so detrimental to a society.
In films that focus on the oppressive relationship between state and individual, the state is shown to have a power that has become abused. The film V for Vendetta (2006) portrays this character of oppression and abusive power. In this tale of a ‘terrorist’ rebelling against the government in order to help the public, the government has complete control over the public through fear. It shows an authoritarian state with “an evil capitalist elite frightening the population with false threats in order to secure obedience” (Bulloch, 432). The high chancellor of this state calls on a group of officials to kill this ‘terrorist’ and lie to the public to maintain complete control. The government toys with the public’s “collective fear as an excuse to persecute and imprison” people that they feel hurt their government such as Muslims, political dissidents, or gays (Vary, 60). In V for Vendetta, the oppressor is kept in charge by means of fear mongering. This character shows the viewer how unfair a society led by an oppressor can become.

Much like V for Vendetta, in The Lives of Others (2005) and Timbuktu (2014) the oppressive characters uses fear to control the public. This is apparent through the authority of the Stasi in The Lives of Others. The Stasi, as a whole, is shown to portray the oppressiveness of the government. In this film, East Germany is under control of the Stasi and is highly regulated in order to keep the public from rebelling or doing anything that the officials deem wrong or illegal. “Grubitz [a member of the Stasi] embodies the ways in which East German officials deployed surveillance and repression to serve personal ends” (Bernstein, 32) and in this was it shown how the public is kept at oppressed. This society gives a sense of constant surveillance in order to maintain control. This oppressive character shows the injustice in repressing a society through surveillance and fear. Timbuktu focuses on the relevant topic of jihadists and Islamists in Timbuktu. The Islamists become the oppressive character in the film to shine a light on the injustice this causes, just as V for Vendetta and The Lives of Others have. The film begins with scenes of Islamists shooting at a gazelle and then African masks and statuettes which starts of the film with an introduction to “the theme of voracious destruction and the perpetration of violence that will destroy everything in its path” (Taoua, 271). This sequence starts off to show the sheer cruelty of the oppressor. Throughout the film, the oppressive character of the Islamists becomes more and more clear. The Islamists took control over Timbuktu and implemented their beliefs on the people living there, making sure to eradicate any belief or identity that clashes with their own. The characters of the oppressors in these three films use fear as a means of control. Each film uses this pattern of repression and fear to show the viewer the sheer cruelty of an oppressive government.

The films use the character of the oppressive government to warn the viewer, but these films also use the character of the individual to show how this oppressive relationship can be detrimental to a society. In V for Vendetta, this character is shown through a few characters. Namely the characters V and Evey are the beacons of hope as individuals going against the state. These characters contrast the government in all ways. V states that “people should not be afraid of their governments – governments should be afraid of their people” and this holds to be true in an oppressive relationship between a government and the public. V and Evey, by the end of the film, are both characters driven by their need to better the government. These characters exist in The Lives of Others and Timbuktu as well. In Timbuktu, the contrasting protagonist characters show up in all forms in the society. In a scene where the Islamists are telling a woman that she must wear gloves, she refuses to, pulls out a knife, and tells them to arrest her because she won’t wear gloves. This scene highlights a character willing to stand against her oppressor for what she believes in. This will to stand against what is wrong in an oppressive society repeats itself throughout this film. A crazy woman stands in front of a truck full of Islamists, blocking their path, and though this character is somewhat untouchable by the government and never receives any sort of repercussions she still stands against the oppressors for the rest of Timbuktu.

This is done in The Lives of Others through a playwright, Dreyman, that is writing an article about suicide rates in East Germany, against the government, and a member of the Stasi, Weisler, that turns against his own members to help the playwright. This film highlights these characters to show that oppressive governments can be corrupted from the inside, destroying the function of the government altogether. Though these characters are beacons of hope in these films, they also show, through the development of their characters, that they can destroy a government. “Dreyman’s generous spirit enables him… to recognize that everyone has their reason”(Bernstein, 30) and thus makes him a character that is understanding and likeable in contrast to the Stasi. This comparison is important. The audience is made to like the protagonist and wish for the destruction of the oppressor in these films. In this way, the strain of this oppressive relationship is highlighted through the contrast of the characters of the individual and the government.

The relationship between the government and the public becomes a struggle in these films. In each film, the audience is shown scenes of the public participating in activities forbidden by the government. The filmmakers included these scenes to better represent the strained relationship between the government and its people. In V for Vendetta, the filmmaker shows scenes of V committing terrorist attacks to turn the people against the government. V blows up the Old Bailey and soon after, the high chancellor tells the news to put out a story that it was a planned demolition (McTeigue). In this way, the film maker shows the struggle between the individual and the oppressor. Each party wants to trump the other and will go to extremes to do this. Sissako, the filmmaker of Timbuktu, says “For me, when it [Timbuktu] was taken hostage, it was the values of humanity that were taken hostage” (Guillen, 43) and this is shown in his film. In a scene where the people of Timbuktu are enjoying singing and making music, which is forbidden, the Islamists come in and break it up and sentence them to lashings; though, earlier in the film they come upon people that are singing, but they are singing about God and the Islamist recruits are unsure whether they should break it up. The struggle in this oppressive relationship is apparent here in that even the Islamists are unsure how to go about punishing the public and still maintain power. The end goal for the oppressor is to always maintain control and in the end has to inflict punishment to show they have the power.

One of the most important pieces in relaying this warning to the audience through film is to show how the individuals will work to rise above their oppressor and take them down. These characters of oppressor and individual develop and lead to the destruction of the government. V for Vendetta focuses on the uprising of the entire public. “This is a story in which a dozy, passive populace wakes up and rises against its government oppressors” (Lyall) and this shows the ability to overcome the fear from the oppressors and destroy the government. An oppressive government is not a stable government and it will collapse when the people are unhappy and controlled by fear. In The Lives of Others, this instability of the oppressive relationship is apparent as well, as the original oppressor’s character develops to be on the side of the individual and ultimately help in rising up against the government oppressors. Weisler is an example of character development to push this message to the audience. The Lives of Others provides another perspective of this corrosive relationship between government and individual in that the means to the end is from the inside of the government.

“In The Lives of Others, the chief irony arises from the fact that two character most devoted to the ideals of communism – a state sanctioned playwright and the Stasi agent assigned to spy on him – find themselves compelled by personal integrity to revolt against the state.” (Bernstein, 30)
Through this excerpt from Bernstein, it is shown that though the individual may be on the side of the political identity of the government, if the government is oppressive they will turn against it and revolt. The message being that even though a government may have a political ideology that the public believes in, too much power can still be abused and lead to an oppressive relationship and, in the end, destruction of the political system itself. Both V for Vendetta and The Lives of Others show the destruction of the government as the oppressive system works against itself and leads to failure, while Timbuktu never shows the actual destruction of the government. The demise of the Islamist state in Timbuktu can be assumed as events get worse. As more individuals start to act out against the demands of the Islamists, more violence comes to them and leads to more instability. In this way, Timbuktu gives the message that with an oppressive state the struggle to maintain power will only continue until leading to an up-rise or the demise of the state.

In these films, the characters develop and change to show the destruction of the government. V for Vendetta’s protagonists begin as two people unhappy with the government and slowly progresses to be an entire population ready to stand against their oppressor. The Lives of Other’s antagonist becomes a protagonist and Weisler helps Dreyman work against the Stasi. Timbuktu’s antagonists are hypocritical and lead to disarray as more people stand up against the Islamist state.

These films all focus on the abuse of power and the destruction of the oppressive state as the public rises against injustice. This message is meant as a warning to modern day politics. If this warning is ignored this could happen today and is happening today.
“That the film [V for Vendetta] is just a film in no way exempts it from consideration and critique as a comment on a very contemporary set of fears, along with the threats that underlie them, real or imagined.” (Bulloch, 431)

It can be understood that the warnings in these films and V for Vendetta, specifically, come from a very real and very relevant “set of fears.” This films is made with “Stalinesque communism and Nazi fascism” in mind in terms of the government (Lyall). In this way, it is apparent that these warnings are necessary not only to stop this sort of oppressive government from existing, but also to stop it from ever happening again.

Sissako, when making Timbuktu, “was inspired, in part, by an incident of an unmarried couple being stoned to death in Ageulhok” (Taoua, 270) which is featured in the movie as well. The entire film is based on real accounts of Islamists taking hostage a city and enforcing rules to further their agenda. Abusing power, whether it be by people like Hitler or Stalin, or by groups like Al Qaeda, can only lead to instability in an oppressive state. This is dangerous and the three films mentioned prove this. A government is fragile. If the people do not feel that their government is serving them they will become unhappy and the government with collapse. Herein lies the danger of an oppressive government. As shown in these films, a government is bound to fail if they cannot keep their people feel oppressed.

V for Vendetta, The Lives of Others, and Timbuktu all use a level of third cinema to get their message across. The points of these film is not purely entertainment, but to convince the audience that there is something wrong with oppressive governments that needs to be stopped. The bombing scenes in V for Vendetta “in the wake of the 7 July 2005 bombings” are not easy for some to watch (Segal, 47). This is done on purpose. The audience shouldn’t feel like it’s okay for governments to be this way. The film makers want the audience to be uncomfortable, so they will stand against the injustice of oppressive government. This application of third cinema is meant to be a catalyst for change in a society, and in this case in ending the ability for oppressive systems to arise.

Films such as The Lives of Others, Timbuktu, and V for Vendetta focus on an oppressive relationship between an individual and state to warn modern day governments of the danger of too much power. These films use character development and a level of third cinema to convince the audience to stand against oppressive governments. It is apparent that these films were made as a warning of the dangers that come with oppressive systems. Through these film’s portrayal of the oppressive relationship between an individual and state the audience can understand not only the dangers but the sheer inevitability of this sort of government to fail and collapse in the struggle to maintain power over unsatisfied and angry individuals. It is important to recognize these films as a warning in order to prevent governments from adapting this oppressive system that is shown to be so detrimental to a society.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Matthew H. “The Lives of Others: Matthew H. Bernstein on an Emotive Surveillance Thriller Set in Communist East Germany.” Film Quarterly, University of California Press, 1 Sept. 2007, fq.ucpress.edu/content/61/1/30.
Bulloch, Douglas. “V Is for Vendetta: P Is for Power A Film Reading of V for Vendetta.” Millenium: Journal of International Studues, vol. 35, no. 2, 2007, pp. 431–434., journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/03058298070350020401.
Guillen, Michael. Hidden Certainties and Active Doubts: An Interview with Abderrahmane Sissako. Cineaste, 2015.
Henckel von Donnersmarck, Florian, director. The Lives of Others. Arte, 2006.
Lyall, Sarah. “The Ingenue Who Blows Up Parliament.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 June 2005, www.nytimes.com/2005/06/19/movies/from-the-wachowski- brothers-an-ingenue-who-blows-up-parliament.html.
McTeigue, James. V For Vendetta. Warner Bros Pictures, 2005. Segal, Victoria. “Treason and Plot.” New Statesman, 20 Mar. 2006,
www.newstatesman.com/node/163965.
Sissako, Abderrahmane, director. Timbuktu. 2014.
Taoua, Phyllis. “ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO’S TIMBUKTU AND ITS CONTROVERSIAL RECEPTION. Abderrahmane Sissako, Director. Timbuktu. Original Title: Timbuktu, Le Chagrin Des Oiseaux. 2014. 97 Minutes. In French, Tamashek, Bambara, Songhay, and Arabic (with Subtitles in English and French). France/Mauritania. Worso Films.” African Studies Review, vol. 58, no. 02, Sept. 2015, pp. 270–278. Project Muse, doi:10.1017/asr.2015.61.
Vary, Adam B. “P For Provocative: V for Vendetta Presents a World Where the Government Exploits People’s Fear of Terrorism and Denies Gays and Lesbians Their Civil Rights. Sound Familiar?” P For Provocative, The Advocate, 28 Mar. 2006, www.questia.com/magazine/1G1-143719561/p-for-provocative-v-for-vendetta-presents- a-world.

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