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Stasi Cinema

Two films—one sentimental, the other stark—look back on East Berlin's culture of suspicion and surveillance

More tough-minded and even poetic, The Decomposition of the Soul has no drama of which to speak: Its subject is a state of being. Like The Lives of Others , Nina Toussaint and Massimo Iannetta's documentary opens with a "decomposition." Here, however, the breakdown never ends. Beginning with the over-bright interrogation rooms, the movie is a victim's tour of Stasi facilities—describing a process of total dehumanization and uncanny familiarity: "Everything is as you imagined it." (Or as Kafka wrote it.)

Spartan in its means, The Decomposition of the Soul concerns two cases. Sigrid Paul brought her infant son to West Berlin for medical treatment and was separated from him once the Wall went up. She and her husband attempted to reach the West with forged documents. Her more serious crime, however, was sheltering three other would-be escapees. Similarly, Hartmut Richter—an East German who made it to the West and became a human rights activist—was imprisoned on a return visit when he was caught smuggling out his sister.

Listening in: Ulrich Mühe as Stasi officer Wiesler
Sony Pictures Classics
Listening in: Ulrich Mühe as Stasi officer Wiesler

Details

The Lives of Others
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Sony Pictures Classics, opens February 9

The Decomposition of the Soul
Written and directed by Nina Toussaint and Massimo Iannetta
February 7 through 13, Film Forum

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The Decomposition of the Soul is an annotated Stasi City. The camera ponders the empty rooms and prowls the deserted corridors as the victims describe the minutiae of sleep deprivation and sensory starvation—a state of endless waiting in which everything that happens, happens suddenly. The inmates took it for granted that any cell mate was an informer and that the guards themselves were "controlled." Freedom came as a shock, as did the discovery of how prevalent informing and control had been on the outside. The Decomposition of the Soul is a deliberately confining movie, but unlike The Lives of Others, it offers no closure.

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