Sunday, February 11, 2007

Stasi Cinema

Two recent films coming out of Germany will make ex-Stasi agents uncomfortable, and they both opened in New York this weekend. Not exactly a multi-plex picture, The Lives of Others (previewed here last week) opened on nine screens Friday, according to boxofficemojo, but with an impressive average take of $24,777 per screen. It is definitely worth searching out. Also playing a limited run at the Film Forum is the 2003 German documentary The Decomposition of the Soul directed by Nina Toussaint and Massimo Iannetta. In addition to awkwardly translated titles, both films expose the brutal tactics of the East German Stasi State Security Agency.

While Lives is a gripping fictional drama that will draw in any moviegoer giving it a chance, Decomposition is more demanding of viewers. It consists largely of tracking shots through former Stasi interrogation rooms and torture chambers as two former prisoners, Hartmut Richter and Sigrid Paul tell their harrowing stories. Filmed over ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the cells and interrogation rooms still retain their oppressive menace.

Although most of the Stasi’s devices for decomposing souls described in the film were psychological and spiritual, Paul relates a chilling episode in which she is ordered to clear human blood and excrement from the floor of the “rubber room.” In recounting her experiences, Paul explained a mental defense strategy she used, visualizing a wall protecting her from her tormentors. Ironically, after the fall of the Wall, she repeatedly tried to confront one such Stasi agent, only to be told he had “walled himself off.”

The filmmakers of Decomposition succeed in conveying some sense of what it was like to be a prisoner within those particular walls. It is not pleasant. That Richter and Paul survived and were willing to return to make the film is amazing. In their flyers, Film Forum recommends seeing Decomposition and Lives in conjunction with one another. Both worthy films certainly expose the viciousness of the East German socialist state (and both films explicitly label it as such). Decomposition will be at the Forum through Feb. 13.

Hopefully, Lives is just starting a long run here in New York. It is a riveting and ultimately beautiful film.