Saturday, August 11, 2007


Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, Democracy spans the years from 1969 to 1974 and tells the tale of two Germanies, East and West, locked together in idealogical battle for the soul of their country. Willy Brandt, newly elected Chancellor of democratic West Germany in 1969, had proclaimed a bold new plan in dealing with its implacable foe, communist East Germany. Rather than ignore their neighbor, as had been done since the demarcation following WWII, Brandt's government would engage them, a policy which came to be known as Ostpolitik.

The East Germans were of course apprehensive of this move but fortunately for them their spy service, the Stasi, was among the best in the world. They had managed to place an agent right where they needed it: in Brandt's staff. A spy by the name of Günter Guillaume, he arrived in West Germany in 1956 with orders to penetrate the political system. He rose through the ranks of the Social Democratic party eventually becoming Brandt's personal assistant.

Answering to two masters, Günter began to feel increasingly torn as his relationship with the Chancellor grew. He wanted to satisfy his Stasi bosses yet was inextricably drawn to Brandt's charisma and forthrightness. Through Günter's reports, it became clear to the East German leadership that this was not some ploy but a genuine effort at rapprochement and that truly frightened them.

The play does not make clear who was responsible although Stasi involvement was suspected. In either case, the result was the same. West Germany security services were tipped off to a spy in Brandt's office and from there the operation quickly unraveled. Brandt became a pariah in the public's eye and was forced to resign in 1974. Günter was arrested and sentenced to 13 years though he was sent back to the East through a prisoner exchange in 1981.

Following the upheaval which came to be known as the Guillaume Affair, each of the characters in the play laments on their role. Helmut Schmidt, heretofore Minister of Finances, nervously accepts the Chancellorship. Longtime rival and fellow Social Democrat Herbert Wehner washes his hands of the whole matter. Guillame is grief-stricken at having betrayed his friend and wishes that he could somehow make it right. Brandt himself recedes into the pages of history though he makes a brief reappearance during German reunification in 1990 when people look back and wonder if his policy of Ostpolitik is partly to thank for the ostentatious occasion.

More than just a play about a visionary leader and the spy within his own ranks, it is also a lesson for those who crave power only to have it unexpectedly pushed onto them. For more than thirty years, the Social Democrats could claim the mantle of defeat but upon winning the majority in 1969, they suddenly had to deal with all the problems of governing. Principles gave way to compromises while character flaws became national scandals.

Playing through August 12th at the renowned Olney Theater, Democracy tells the story of human beings, replete with all their imperfections, muddling their way through very dark and dangerous times. The quick interplay and political intrigue between characters will keep you spell-bound for the two hours and forty minutes runtime.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales

Returning after a near 10-year hiatus, J. Michael Straczynski once again opens the doors to the Babylon 5 universe which first made its appearance in 1993 and became a weekly show. Through all the difficulties, such as actors walking off the job and network executives pulling the plug, the show soldiered on and eventually garnered a large and loyal fan base. Yet from the beginning, Straczynski made it clear that the show was not meant to last more than five years and so in 1998, we said a tearful goodbye.

Taking place 10 years after the events of the last episode of Babylon 5, The Lost Tales is actually two stories in one. The first concerns a demon-like creature which has taken possession of a crew member. Devoid of action, the story instead relies completely on dialogue and features Commander Lochley and a priest who is called in to exercise the demon. The interplay between the characters was a poignant reminder of a show far ahead of its time, one which used technology where necessary to enhance a story but never forgot what made a good story in the first place.

The second episode centers on President Sheridan, leader of the Interstellar Alliance. His leisurely journey to Babylon 5 for the 10-year anniversary celebration of the founding of that alliance is interrupted when Galen, a technomage from his past, gives him an awful choice: either kill a boy who has entrusted his life to Sheridan or watch Earth be destroyed by that boy's future fleet of warships.

In addition to the two episodes, there are also interviews with Boxleitner, Scoggins and Straczynski himself. Memorials to deceased actors Andreas Katsulas and Richard Biggs, who played Citizen G'Kar and Doctor Franklin respectively, are touching and reveal just how well the cast got along with each other.

My only complaint would have to be a technical one. During the second episode when Galen is talking to Sheridan in his dream, a boom mike suddenly appears at the top of the screen and stays for about five seconds before disappearing. Seeing the fourth wall so egregiously broken was a bit shocking, especially given Straczynski's penchant for perfection.

Overall, I would say that casual fans of the show probably won't get much out of this DVD. But for those who would consider themselves hard core, myself included, it's like stepping into a pool and finding the water warm and inviting. I just hope we get more than a toe-dipping with the next installment.