The Decomposition Of The Soul

2003, Movie, NR, 82 mins


Released simultaneously in the U.S. with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Oscar-nominated fictional thriller THE LIVES OF OTHERS, this chilling 82-minute documentary about three souls destroyed by the Stasi, the notorious secret police of East Germany, puts a cold, factual gloss on what might otherwise be taken for fiction.

Shot entirely within the walls of the infamous Berlin-Hohenschonhausen prison, where the Ministry for State Security — the Stasi — "detained" and interrogated hundreds of thousands of East German "enemies of the state," filmmakers Massimo Iannetta and Nina Toussaint follow two former Stasi detainees as they revisit the site of their worst nightmares. Hartmut Richter, once an ardent Leninist who'd grown increasingly disillusioned with the reality of the GDR, was "controlled" at a checkpoint in 1975 while attempting to smuggle his sister across the border into West Germany; prior to his arrest, he'd succeeded in helping 33 people escape. Sigrid Paul, along with her husband, was accused of sheltering three would-be escapees and was taken by the Stasi while she waited for a bus in 1963, despite the fact that her infant son was dangerously ill. Returning to Hohenschonhausen, now a memorial museum, Richter and Paul conduct separate tours through the halls of the prison, while the camera focuses on the mundane details of the Stasi bureaucracy that reveal the horrifying banality of it all: the coffee cup left sitting on an official's desk, a clean ashtray, the incongruously cheerful blue gingham linens that cover the hardwood cots of the prison cells. Our guides explain the circumstances of their arrests and their transport to Hohenschonhausen, then describe what occurred in each area of the facility where they would spend the entirety of their "pre-trial detention," from the central control room where arrests and transports were planned, to the detention area where victims were forced to undergo a humiliating full body search, to the small cells where they would spend the majority of their days, virtually every inch of which were observable from peepholes set into the doors. Worst of all are the interrogation rooms where, disoriented by disinformation and a lack of sleep (the Stasi specialized in sleep deprivation as a form of psychic torture), detainees underwent hours of unrelenting questioning while forced to remain perched on small, backless stools with both hands under their thighs at all times — a seemingly harmless posture that proved agonizing over the course of several hours. Tormented into giving up information regardless of truth — and the names of "collaborators" irrespective of their innocence — Stasi victims would be pushed to join the estimated 200,000 Stasi informers who either spied on their fellow inmates or, in the ultimate betrayal of trust, were released to report on their families, friends and neighbors.

In addition to Richter and Paul, two other voices are heard throughout this somber, shattering film: prisoner Jurgen Fuchs, a renowned psychologist and a poet powerful enough to capture the true horror of his ordeal, and the anonymous author of a Stasi interrogation handbook that reads like an Orwellian pastiche. It's here that we learn about the concept from which the film takes its title: the process of gradual psychic and spiritual disintegration that produced a civilian informer. But it's Fuchs' voice that lingers long after the film has ended. Fuchs died in 1991 from a rare form of leukemia, the possible victim of a secret irradiation process Fuchs' contends the Stasi used to further mark their victims in ways invisible to the naked eye. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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The Decomposition Of The Soul
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