A thorny subject is handled with care in this meticulous reconstruction of life inside the East German police state, as boiled down to the experiences of just two ex-inmates -- one man and one woman --- of a notorious Stasi prison. Pic should carry as much weight with auds contemplating the nature of totalitarianism as it does with those interested in the terrible particulars of a vanished world.

A correction was made to this review on Jan. 7, 2004.

A thorny subject is handled with care in this meticulous reconstruction of life inside the East German police state, as boiled down to the experiences of just two ex-inmates — one man and one woman — of a notorious Stasi prison. Overall effect is poetically thought-provoking, not depressing. Pic should carry as much weight with auds contemplating the nature of totalitarianism as it does with those interested in the terrible particulars of a vanished world. “The Decomposition of the Soul” is a must for human rights fests, and top-flight viewing wherever docus are featured.

Sigrid Paul was detained just after the Berlin Wall went up; she was accused of harboring students trying to escape the Russian zone. Hartmut Richter was arrested in the act of spiriting Osties out in his car — he had succeeded with 33 before getting caught. The calmly lensed pic follows their return to the Berlin hellhole shut down since 1989 (and subsequently turned into a memorial), where they spent years getting “reeducated” in the name of the people.

Their descriptions of torture — psychological, not physical — is interposed with superb readings of two texts: the stirring writing of ex-prisoner Jurgen Fuchs, who describes how “the Wall itself fell across my heart” (he later died mysteriously of radiation poisoning), and excerpts from a GDR workbook for Stasi interrogators, the tome a veritable masterpiece of Orwellian doubletalk.

Main mode of torment was to deprive prisoners of all comforts and stimulation — they had to sit in bare rooms without moving for hours — and thus become utterly dependent on their interrogators. In this way, the interrogators created thousands of small-fry informants, a microcosm of a state in which almost everyone was made a part of the complicity of the dehumanizing process.

Pic’s sole music is an ironic cabaret number by East German dissident Wolf Biermann, heard over the only genuinely colorful images, of lush trees seen in contrast to bare, wintry branches earlier glimpsed against gray prison walls.

The Decomposition of the Soul

Belgium-Germany

Production

An Image Creation/Lichtfilm production, in association with the Centre De L'Audiovisuel a Bruxelles, RTBF, ADR, Arte, and support from FilmFoerderung Hamburg, Communaute Francaise. (International sales: CBA, Brussels.) Produced by Martine Barbe, Wolfgang Bergmann. Coproducer, Kathlee de Bethune. Directed, written by Nina Toussaint, Massimo Iannetta.

Crew

Camera (color, Super 16), Remon Froment; editor, Sandrine Deegen; sound, Paul Oberle, Olivier Vanderaa; assistant director, Jean-Baptiste Filleau. Reviewed at Vancouver Film Festival (Nonfiction Features), Oct. 5, 2003. Running time: 80 MIN. (German dialogue)
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