The man suddenly asks the question: “Have you ever done something that you deeply regret?” After a little hesitation, the woman replies with a confession. She betrayed her husband when she was in prison and felt pressured. GDR time, Stasi prison, a couple who wanted to flee to the West. The man listens with understanding, but confesses nothing himself. Can’t either. He was a senior Stasi officer.
It’s just a short scene in the rather breathtaking series Weissensee (only available on DVD) that takes place in East Berlin between 1980 and 1990. As a good western spectator you can conclude for the umpteenth time that you have experienced very little. And you may also wonder if you’ve ever really believed in anything. Freedom of course, but hey, that’s very relative and what do we mean by freedom? Equality and brotherhood, do you also believe in, although brotherhood was called solidarity for a long time and it is no longer called anything. Everyone is suddenly talking about empathy, but that’s something else. Solidarity expresses itself rather in assistance without knowing who is helping you – impersonal empathy, so to speak. But that is no longer in fashion.
Are we as a species selfish? hmm. That’s not such a good question. In a podcast from the science editors of NRC Editor Hendrik Spiering recently once again clearly explained that it makes no sense to want to look at everything at the genetic level, because the genes do have an influence, but by no means determine everything. Life, with all possible human reactions to all possible events, is too complicated for that.
Yes, I like to think so too. We are not wholly determined, life is rich and manifold,”even the slightest/turning of an eye irreparably upsets and brings about and brings about en” once wrote Judith Herzberg and that’s how it is. Everything has consequences, but it is impossible to predict what those consequences will be.
You can do things that you should be deeply ashamed of afterwards. In Weissensee there is another kind of determination going on, that of an oppressive state. That is a great and terrible pressure, yet people did not always see it as an excuse for bad behavior.
You usually don’t have to regret such great things, living here, although I sometimes wonder how people from the tax authorities who have persevered, who have said big things about ‘tackling hard’, now feel, now really no one in that reality anymore of them believe. The people who let reports end up in a drawer, the ones who feel responsible for destroying other people’s lives. Do they dare to ask themselves if they deeply regret something?
Regret is a miserable feeling. Having done something that cannot be made right, what should you do with it? The Stasi officer can’t get rid of his past, he can’t cleanse himself of what he’s done – or can he? The series asks that question. He can show that he is no longer who he was, not by saying so, but by living the new understanding. That’s all there is to it, the woman tells him.
Remarkable how everything immediately becomes a resemblance if you take a moment to distance yourself from the historical and individual differences, a resemblance to the great – the state and its faults, and the small – yourself and your faults. Showing you’re doing things differently now is the only response to genuine regret.
Marjoleine de Vos is editor of NRC.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 5, 2021