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Being Watched

IN THIS AGE CRAMMED WITH STATISTICS, one tauntingly important item is missing, and always will be. How many people on the face of the earth spend their lives spying—professionally—on other people? The media continually serve up lashings of stuff about secretagents and security personnel. Sometimes it seems that almost half the global population spies on the other half, with a remnant reserved to spy on the spies. Of course there have always been spies, but the growth in electronic means of spying, in doomsday weaponry, in the hovering sense that the whole planet may be made to conform to one set of principles (whatever they are), and that espionage helps one set or another— all these matters make spyinga constant in the back of the head. 

Two new German films bring it to the forefront. It is mere coincidence that they arrive together, but they make an excellent pair—not only because of their subject but because of their quality as films. Both of them are about the Stasi, the secret police force of the German Democratic Republic. (Stasi is an abbreviation for Staatssicherheit, State Security.) Its chief job was to sniff out dissidents, spy on them to gather evidence, and then deal with them.

One of the films is a documentary, thoughtfully made. The title is The Decomposition of the Soul, and florid though that may sound, it is exact. Nina Toussaint and Massimo Iannetta, the directors, keep their film entirely within the buildings of Hohenschonhausen in East Berlin, which was the Stasi jail and interrogation center. Theplace is now completely deserted, but the directors make its blank walls and steel doors and antiseptic office furniture redolent with what happened there.

The subject is not torture in the Nazi way. (Some physical torture is mentioned, but it is not the center.) Two people, a man and a woman who may not even know each other, who had been Stasiprisoners in this place some forty years earlier—the film was made in 2002—take us on a tour. The film treats them separately, and each explains in simple yet seasoned terms what happened to him orher, as they show us their cells and the various offices where they were questioned. The passage of time has provided them with at least a mask of philosophical consideration.

Sigrid was a dental assistant who had been hustled off by agents one morning in 1964 and held incommunicado. (Much later she learned that her husband had been arrested, too.) She was accused of helping students who wanted to escape, and she explained what the circumstances were, which her interrogators didn't believe. (There had also been visits to West Berlin to visit her child, who was hospitalized there.) This questioning went on for nineteen months, here and in another prison, burrowing for her confederates and plans and opinions. Quite calmly she describes to us the method of interrogation. Smooth. Sometimes coffee was offered, sometimes cigarettes. The only physical harassments, clever ones, were being seated on a stool with her hands under her for many hours, being deprived of sleep, having whatever sleep was allowed interrupted.

The interrogation of Hartmut was longer and deeper because he had once been a Leninist and had changed—and had helped people toescape East Germany. (After all the questionings, he served a five-and-a-half-year prison term.) Hartmut recreates the gist of the interrogations. They were sometimes almost in the vein of cafe conversations, but he felt that the questions dug more and more deeply into the core of his being. Hartmut understood (as did Sigrid) that the Stasi were actually less interested in confessions about actions and associations than in something more profound.They wanted to decompose and recompose his soul. (Sigrid's and Hartmut's comments are sometimes braided with excerpts from a book by Jurgen Fuchs, a writer who had been through similar experiences and had been released.)

The art of Iannetta and Toussaint is to make this steely building assume a species of being. As Sigrid or Hartmut talks or as Fuchsis quoted, we frequently see corridors, glass-brick windows that admit light but through which one cannot look, a typewriter, a telephone, just by themselves. A strange phenomenon occurs: the camera itself becomes one of the prisoners in this place. The camera itself becomes another victim of the tacit torment in the film's title.

This introduction to Stasi methods is the perfect prelude to The Lives of Others. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, it is a fiction film that deals with a Stasi case. A successful playwright in East Berlin, Georg Dreyman, is suspected by Culture Minister Hempf of political wavering. Hempf orders a Stasi investigation, partly for political reasons and partly because he is interested in Georg's lover, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland.

"Investigation" means spying. The job of bugging Dreyman's apartment falls to Captain Wiesler, a fervent loyalist who even teaches in the Stasi academy. He now spends hours in the attic above Dreyman'sapartment listening to the quarrels and passions of the lovers and their conversations with friends. It becomes clear to him quite early that Georg and Christa-Maria are not happy with the GDR government, but he keeps listening.

There are hints of Tosca in the way that Christa-Maria accedes to Minister Hempf when she learns of his concerns about her lover. But the crux of the film is not with them but with Captain Wiesler, especially with the effect that the monitoring has on the monitor. If he doesn't actually fall in love with Christa- Maria, he becomes empathetic, sensitized to her danger, which is a new experience for a man who (as we have seen) has conducted many of the interrogations we heard about in the other film.

It would be unjust to unravel the events that unwind in the climax—and in the postlude that constitutes a kind of quieter climax. But the picture tells us that people who spend their lives concentrating on the lives of others are not always immune to contact with others' lives. If this is weakness in a secret service, in this case we can't quite suppress a grunt of satisfaction. Obviously, in the world as it is, all of us need protection whether we like it or not. The spies are here to stay—and increase. But some perversity in us keeps hoping that they are not all robots.

The cast of this film stokes that perversity. Sebastian Koch, as Georg, has the sort of good looks that bespeak an interesting man. Martina Gedeck, as Christa-Maria, is lovely and, in all shades, compelling. Ulrich Muhe makes Wiesler the kind of rigidly strict, thoroughly convinced officer who shows no hint of breach and therefore makes us suspect the possibility. Thomas Thieme, as Minister Hempf, provides lechery coaxed along by power. Thus, despite the fact that parts of this film remind us of past pictures with comparable themes, the director and his actors make it immediate, gripping.

This article appeared in the February 19-26, 2007 issue of the magazine.