Friday, May 07, 2010

Visions of East Germany: DDR/DDR

It was not a god that failed in East Germany, but modernism’s promise of glories to come. Nothing better represents this decrepit futurism than Ulrich Muther’s flying saucer shaped life-guard station constructed during the years of the Deutsche Democratic Republic (DDR). Fittingly, it appears as a recurring motif in Amie Siegel’s DDR/DDR, a cinematic essay on the fundamental changes experienced by East Germany, which screened as part of the 2008 Whitney Biennial and now opens theatrically today at the Anthology Film Archives.

Combining elements of experimental collage and traditional documentary filmmaking, DDR/DDR is consistently meditative in tone, but provocatively connects many seemingly disparate elements of East German life. Siegel makes strong visual and historical analogies between guns and cameras, particularly the long telescopic lens developed for the Stasi, the East German secret police. While as a documentarian, she records a crash course in Stasi technology from a post-unification collector of Stasi surveillance technology, as well as the oral histories of two relatively unrepentant Stasi veterans.

Throughout DDR/DDR, Siegel lovingly pans East German interiors apparently frozen in time, like the Mies van der Rohe-looking office of the former Stasi director, as if hoping to capture a ghost haunting the once modernistic quarters. However, unlike Nina Toussaint and Massimo Ianetta’s chilling Stasi documentary Decomposition of the Soul, Siegel is not trying to recreate the experience of being in these chambers back in the day. Instead, they are more like samples mixed in to her composite for varying effects. Indeed, it is a high irony to watch a vintage uncomfortable-looking DDR-era chair as it shipped to a Soho gallery to be sold for a tidy sum.

As documentary, DDR/DDR is most successful when Siegel explores the torturous role played by psychoanalysis in East German society. Though officially proscribed, Stasi interrogators received extensive psychological training, in order to more efficiently break their subjects. Still, there were limited areas of legitimate psychoanalysis available to patients, yet even these were compromised by Stasi intrusion. Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the film occurs when an East German psychologist discusses her experiences as the target of a Stasi harassment campaign. Deliberately moving from her analyst’s chair to her patients’ couch, it is almost like a conscious role reversal on her part, as she revisits some distinctly painful personal history. As a result, her insights and honesty are the high points of the film, by far.

Still, DDR/DDR is more about its waves of images, than it is about straight-forward historical inquiry. Arguably, Siegel spends far too much time with visuals that strike her fancy, like the teepees and traditional garb of an East German subculture obsessed with Native American ways of life. Frankly, the real problem with DDR/DDR is there is too much of Siegel (and her politics), often seen in self-referential scenes recording narration or debating the best translation of “Wende,” the German shorthand term for the social transformation following the fall of the wall. In contrast, it is best when parsing and deconstructing the grainy surveillance footage and odd training films produced by the Stasi.

Tellingly, Siegel observes the Stasi archives are entirely analog, since the Wende revolution predated the digital revolution. Juxtaposing the ironic and the sentimental, DDR/DDR is an indeterminate elegy to an East Germany that never achieved the bold future it was pledged. Frequently fascinating, but somewhat thematically inconsistent, DDR/DDR is considerably more engaging than a thumbnail description would suggest. Recommended for adventurous audiences, it opens today (5/7) in New York at the Anthology Film Archives.