The Reeler


February 6, 2007

The Decomposition of the Soul

Former Stasi prisoners supply a fascinating, if insular, look at the shame of the GDR

November 9, 1989: Down went the Berlin Wall, dragging the weight of the entire German Democratic Republic along with it. Authoritarian governments fall hard, and this one hit rock bottom with the resounding thud of oppression that had lasted half a century. The government's clandestine security team, the Stasi, had developed wildly demoralizing techniques of deconstructing the ideological resolve of citizens imprisoned for supposedly harboring politically subversive opinions. When the regime collapsed, Stasi officials destroyed numerous incriminating documents, but for the prisoners subjected to the tortuous mind games, the experience remained firmly imprinted on their psyches. This cruel psychological permanence provides filmmakers Nina Toussaint and Massimo Ianetta with the abstract framework of The Decomposition of the Soul, an experimental documentary that fascinates despite its structural flaws.

Revisiting the Stasi prisons through eyes of two survivors, Soul has a minimalist, haunting aesthetic that grows tiring after the one hour mark of its 82 minutes. The survivors wander inside the prison's frayed walls looking solemn and contemplative as they recall how Stasi guards would subject them to the pressures of being under constant surveillance -- even after they were allowed to leave the prison. That's pretty much all that happens, however, which makes it chilling if occasionally slow going. The intended effect seems to be a distancing one, so that the audience becomes viscerally involved in the cold horror of the former prisoners' memories. It's an admirable effort, but I prefer my history lessons with a visit to the archives as well, or at least more than one layer of commentary.

That being said, the film's dour tone is difficult to forget. As a former prisoner sits in the same chair where he once was forced to undergo harrowing interrogation, the moment gives off a ghostly vibe. This particular type of formalism recalls Claude Lanzmann's method of reviving Holocaust trauma in his sprawling epic Shoah; Lanzmann rejected the idea that preexisting images can adequately conjure the experiences being described without being exploitative.

But Lanzmann also infused his documentary with a sense of urgency and anger about the events in question, particularly when confronting subjects with clearly incriminating pasts. By limiting the perspective in their documentary to the memories of two victims, Toussain and Ianetta fail to infuse their subject with the comprehensive, moral immediacy required to tackle such tough material. The lasting effect is that of flipping through a rather grave scrapbook.

Complaints about a movie that boldly delves into such a difficult series of events and involves people who experienced it are hard to make. This is an important work, and the filmmakers deserve recognition for their ability to engage the matter in a way that invokes the prisoners’ subjectivity. Still, the story cries out to be forced into the present; The Decomposition of the Soul was released in Germany in 2002, and is only now receiving its first American release. Today their subjects' parallels with the accounts of former prisoners from Abu Ghraib and other present-day corollaries are too obvious to be ignored; without them the film feels dated, or at least lacking a final, cautionary chapter.

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