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Back in the GDR: A Review of “The Decomposition of the Soul”

Irina Ivanova Feb 6, 2007

The Decomposition of the Soul
Dir. Massimo Iannetta and Nina Toussaint, 2002
Opens at the film Forum Feb. 7 for a 1-week run

DECOMPOSITION: Operative Method Used By State Security To Efficiently Fight Subversive Action.

Given this definition, from the East German secret police department’s Dictionary of Operative Work, The Decomposition of the Soul, a Belgian-produced documentary about the former East German police state, couldn’t be better titled.

Opening with the sound of wind on empty institutional grounds (establishing a chill that stays with us throughout), the film features interviews with two former detainees at Berlin- Hohenschönhausen, the central political prison of the former German Democratic Republic. Established in 1945 as an internment camp by operatives of the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB, it was converted one year later to the central “preventive [pretrial] prison” for political dissidents and held the distinction of containing more interrogation rooms than cells. Operated by East German secret police (the “Stasi”), which counted 90,000 official and an estimated 300,000 “nonofficial” collaborators, the prison was part of what is widely regarded as one of the most effective intelligence systems in history.

Detained for helping others cross the Berlin Wall, one man and one woman recount the many hours of interrogation, sleep deprivation, humiliation and mock trials that preceded conviction and more “traditional” imprisonment. Remon Froment’s camera follows them silently through the empty rooms, still marked with signs of human presence – an empty teacup, some lumps of sugar. Unmoving, suspenseful visuals have a hypnotic effect, exacerbating the sheer weight of the spoken words.

The documentary is Orwellian to the core, simultaneously dated and eerily futuristic both in visuals and subject, and exploits this to its advantage. Though the bleak environs could easily belong to some underfunded Soviet school or hospital, nothing in the decrepit buildings is accidental – windows let in light but are too thick to see through; light switches are ineffectual. There truly is no darkness and nowhere to hide – your fellow prisoners are probably informing on you as well.

Hohenschönhausen (its name translates to “beautiful village on a hill”) continued operating until days before the Berlin Wall fell, reaching a final crescendo of panic in which officials attempted to destroy records, tearing files by hand when shredders collapsed under the load. The memories of just two former prisoners, however, provide a trove of painstaking detail to carry the narrative. The single document the film relies on is the Stasi Dictionary of Political Operative Work, whose definitions and interrogation tactics, read aloud throughout the film, provide a chilling backdrop of governmental doublespeak. This is the one area in which an appreciation of German and its hypercompound noun structures would help in understanding the film, as the English subtitles fall short of conveying this linguistic complexity.

The film’s most unnerving quality is its quiet demonstration of the after effects of torture outside the prison: former detainees, including the two we meet, continued to be watched after their release, even in the West. Ex-prisoner Jürgen Fuchs, whose poetic writings are interspersed throughout the film, speculated before his death in 1999 from a rare type of leukemia that he had been deliberately irradiated during his detention in the prison. He had.

Even as Hohenschönhausen is converted into a memorial, this austere first effort from writerdirectors Massimo Iannetta and Nina Toussaint reads as warning of both a past and a future much too close for comfort.