What are some great films about surveillance


Dr. Claus Löser

is a film historian and specialist journalist. After studying at the Potsdam-Babelsberg Film School, from which he graduated in 1995, he founded the "ex.oriente.lux" film archive in 1996. In 2011 he wrote his dissertation Strategies of Denial / Investigations into the political-aesthetic gesture of inappropriate cinematic articulations in the late phase of the GDR.

What influence did the MfS have on TV and cinema films and also on the training to become a director? And how did the State Security itself appear in films? Which films have managed to convey the work (and aftermath) of the Stasi in the most instructive way?

Photo from "The invisible visor" with actor Armin Müller-Stahl (& copy RBB Berlin)

In the run-up to Christmas 1973, GDR television started the first season of one of its most successful series ever. "The invisible visor" achieved stable ratings of around 50 percent and was reissued annually until December 1976 with similar success. In 1977 the number of viewers crashed, in 1979 the last episode went on the station. The end of the popularity came mainly because the previous leading actor had been replaced by a far less charismatic and, above all, less popular actor. This is not without a certain irony. Nobody less than Armin Mueller-Stahl was the favorite of the East German TV audience and, as MfS officer Werner Bredebusch alias First Lieutenant of the Luftwaffe a.D. Achim Detjen, ensured high audience numbers. After Mueller-Stahl had co-signed the petition against the expatriation of the songwriter Wolf Biermann in 1976, he fell out of favor and applied for an exit visa. Of course, he was no longer acceptable in the role of a Stasi employee. Rather, the GDR secret police began to be interested in him too.

"The invisible visor" was a real "street sweeper" and at least occasionally prevented many GDR citizens from only ever tuning in to ARD or ZDF. The mixture of adventure, espionage, exoticism and eroticism struck an unusual tone for the otherwise clumsy and prudish broadcast program from Berlin-Adlershof. Most of the action took place in places that the normal GDR population could never visit: Italy, Argentina, Portugal, Scandinavia, South Africa, and finally the Federal Republic of Germany, where all the threads of imperialist machinations and intrigues converge in the film. The television viewers were offered brisk entertainment in the style of James Bond films, while at the same time suggesting that it was quasi a "clean agent activity". After all, it was about saving "world peace". And after all, every sovereign state affords a foreign secret service - according to a widespread consensus of opinion.

One-sided activity presentation

The fact that the HVA, as an integral part of the SED power apparatus, could not be separated from its activities in the fight against the "enemy within" was elegantly overlooked. The dependencies on Moscow's Cold War strategies were also not mentioned. Even the connection to the GDR itself is presented in a remarkably cautious manner in the total of 16 episodes. Every now and then officers in East Berlin are shown evaluating the information. These then also bring flowers to Comrade Bredebusch's lonely mother. In the meantime, your son is operating in the West as a "scout of peace" - as was the official language for a foreign spy in the Stasi service. The focus of the series was not on the notorious departments that monitor their own population, but on the foreign intelligence service headed by Markus Wolf from 1952 to 1986, which was formally known as the "Headquarters Enlightenment" (HVA). The initiative for the screen spectacle came directly from the Ministry of State Security. In a clever way, because almost on the side, the MfS propagated and idealized its own work.

The successful concept of the "Invisible Visor" and similar productions is based on the use of structures from Western genre cinema and television, which, from the point of view of the SED ideologues, were charged with politically reversed messages. The socialist "scout film" took up the aesthetic forms of the "class enemy" and turned them against him. The average viewer, on the other hand, did not care about the messages at first: he wanted to experience exciting films and accepted an MfS officer as the main character for 90 minutes at a time, even if he would actually have preferred to see the James Bond original. This trick had already been used effectively in 1963 with the DEFA feature film "For Eyes Only". Here, Alfred Müller, directed by János Veiczi, played an MfS agent who was smuggled into an American secret service center in Würzburg, where he obtained explosive secret papers. His spectacular escape to the GDR and the subsequent publication of the papers exposed the alleged aggression plans of the "Bonn Ultras". Over two million viewers watched the skilfully staged political crime thriller in the GDR cinemas.

Genre productions like this rise and fall with the craftsmanship with which they are implemented. This worked better in the cases described above, but not so well in some others. What all these films have in common is that they deal with the MfS's work abroad. At the same time, the omnipresence of the ever-expanding security apparatus and the associated surveillance of its own population was masked out in the filmic media of the GDR. A rather curious exception is Kurt Maetzig's feature film "Septemberliebe" (1960). Here a young woman confidently turns to the comrades of the Stasi to report her own friend's intentions to flee, who is then arrested and given the opportunity in the "socialist prison system" to rethink his relationship with the workers 'and peasants' state. The attentive lover and informer is waiting in front of the prison walls for her cleansed bridegroom. This film showed the Stasi employees as confidants who appeared to be fatherly, who also lead their own private lives and maintain a friendly contact office in the middle of Leipzig Central Station. The attempt to portray the MfS as a completely normal institution of socialist society remained an isolated case - the gap between this transfiguration and the oppressive experience among the potential viewers was too obvious. Who should and wanted to watch such an obvious falsification of reality in the cinema?

Visual secret language and its decodings

It is logical that until 1989 there were no official East German films in which the corrosive energy of the Stasi was dealt with. At the same time, the topic was latently present, but as it grew it became increasingly taboo. In the 1970s, triggered by the Biermann affair in 1976, the security apparatus was enormously enlarged. Its structure underwent a major modernization, the workforce was massively increased, especially the network of "unofficial employees" (IM) assumed an unprecedented extent. The presence of the "authority" in the state media, on the other hand, was in inverse proportion. The inward-looking activity was no longer even played down from the late 1970s, as it was in Maetzig's feature film. The MfS simply did not appear on the screen or on television in the last decade of the GDR. Although the real socialist secret police were extremely present in the experience of almost all GDR citizens, they were not reflected in the media images.

As a result of this fading out, in addition to the official language in the visual arts, literature and film, a coding system was developed that required only a few characters in order to be understood as an allusion to the MfS. Without even having to use explanatory words, harmless constellations or even historical material suddenly became charged with current-political explosiveness. A film set in repressive Prussia in the 18th century, such as Frank Vogel's "Die Gänse von Bützow" (1985), could easily be read as a GDR parable, including bourgeoisie, censorship, surveillance and escape. Ulrich Weiß took a particularly brave approach with "Your Unknown Brother" (1981). He went back to a novel by the communist author Willi Bredel to describe the universality of totalitarian systems - and thus also of the GDR. Using a Gestapo spy within a resistance group, the film reveals the mechanisms of betrayal and disintegration. Due to the obvious analogies between national and real socialism, Weiss incurred the anger of cultural officials and was only able to make one more film afterwards. Also in Andreas Dresen's student film "Der Zug into die Ferne" (1989), which had a cabaret touch, everyone knew immediately who and what was hiding behind the newspaper-reading man on the platform. This visual encoding was reproduced in the films of the artistic underground, which were actually made completely independently of the state picture factories in Berlin-Adlershof or Potsdam-Babelsberg. Often the conspicuous-inconspicuous men in raincoats, waiting at the corners of houses or in parked cars. In general, many of these works shot on Super-8 have an extremely paranoid atmosphere. There are numerous interrogation and persecution situations that initially seem timeless and placeless, which corresponded directly to the world of experience of both their makers and the (few) viewers.

Influence, observation, prohibition

The Ministry of State Security was part of a far more extensive apparatus of influence and repression than the mysterious-sounding abbreviation "Stasi" initially suggests. The MfS did not operate as an independent "state within the state", which sometimes broke through the breach, but performed precisely defined tasks within the overall system. That is why the Stasi must be examined in all of its contexts. It is counterproductive to demonize them - because, conversely, the overall social situation in the GDR is played down.

In the field of art, the confrontations between spirit and power are particularly acute. If an elementary human form of expression is under constant observation and control and its suitability for state policy or its harmfulness is tapped, then of course the works that emerge from it cannot remain unaffected by it. In the history of the GDR only very few artistic loners managed to keep their work free from the demands of the state and its instruments. In the field of film this was almost impossible. The material, personnel and organizational expenditure was too great, its public impact too strong, for niches of completely free artistic work to be able to endure here. It is no coincidence that Lenin is said to have called film the "most important of all the arts". Anyone who entered this medium knew from the outset that they were under special observation here.

Even the young people who hopefully started studying at the University of Film and Television (HFF) had already absorbed a long series of GDR experiences and learned to behave in accordance with the norms. "Political reliability" was questioned more carefully than artistic talent in the entrance examination at the HFF. In any case, the examination committee also had the notorious "cadre file" in which any misconduct was recorded. If the applicants actually succeeded in being matriculated, the regulation was far from over; on the contrary. There were Marxist-Leninist classes and paramilitary training. Addresses of allegiance to the "socialist fatherland" were regularly requested. And there was spying by fellow students and teachers. Some, like the later documentary filmmaker Thomas Heise or the writer Thomas Brasch, were unwilling to make these compromises. You have been de-registered or arrested. Others managed to get through their studies successfully, then to be taken over by one of the DEFA studios and later to shoot important films. Still others gave in to the seductions of power, buckled, gave up their utopias - where they existed -, became collaborators or even informers themselves. Each individual case is subject to individual constellations and is dependent on many contradicting factors. But no graduate of the film school left it unaffected by the political realities of the GDR. In any case, nobody was free from the knowledge of the dangerous consequences in terms of content or formal non-adaptation.

In the DEFA studios, the comprehensive control continued at an even higher level, both officially and unofficially. Especially after the 11th plenum of the Central Committee of the SED in December 1965, as a result of which almost the entire annual production of feature films was banned, the censorship was perfected. In order to prevent offensive films from being made at all, which later had to be laboriously banned, the admission restrictions were shifted well into the run-up to the production process. Scenarios and scripts were already subject to an intensive examination by the studio management. The reports of the permanent editors and dramaturges were flanked and supplemented by the reports of the IMs - often in personal union. The degree of influence and prevention varied depending on the general political weather situation, and was again and again dependent on individual personal details. After the Wall was built in 1961, a relatively tolerant mood prevailed at DEFA. In this "thaw" climate, filmmakers like Konrad Wolf, Frank Vogel or Frank Beyer were encouraged by individual state leaders to take on explosive issues. But after Minister of Culture Hans Bentzien and Jochen Mückenberger were removed from their posts in 1966, the mood turned again. After Walter Ulbricht was ousted by Erich Honecker at the beginning of the 1970s, there was a second, shorter thaw period, which ended in November 1976 with the "Biermann shock". Many artists who were just able to publish their works as writers, painters or filmmakers were targeted by the MfS, were often banned from their profession and were subject to other reprisals and eventually went to the West.

Put to the test in a special way

Cases are documented from all four decades of GDR socialism in which the MfS intervened directly in the artistic work and individual biographies of filmmakers. The measures taken against Frank Beyer, Rainer Simon and Sibylle and Hannes Schönemann, for example, were particularly perfidious. Beyer, whose Holocaust drama "Jakob the Liar", published in 1974, earned the DEFA its only Oscar nomination, was systematically sidelined under the Operative Process (OV) "Carbide" and eventually moved to the West. Compared to Simon (OV "Schreiber") a downright absurd control measure arose, which is probably unparalleled in the entire history of censorship in the Eastern Bloc. In order to check whether he was a loyal filmmaker or a politically unreliable filmmaker, Simon was asked to film a controversial subject of the present. An entire feature film was initiated, so to speak, in order to check the loyalty of a single director. During the shooting, the MfS and the studio management confirmed the suspicions. The film "Jadup Boel" - one of the most beautiful and ironic inventories from the late phase of the GDR - was banned in 1981 and disappeared in the vaults until 1988. Simon never again made a film that was set in real socialist real time.

The most serious were the secret service activities against the young filmmaker couple Sibylle and Hannes Schönemann (OV "Zweifler"). After it became more and more obvious for the two film artists experimenting with unusual subjects and shapes that they would never be able to implement their visions within the framework of DEFA, they submitted an application to leave the country. To set an example, in November 1984 she was arrested and sentenced for "joint interference with state activity" for a year and two months. They spent nine months in prison before they were ransomed by the Federal Republic of Germany. She only saw her two children again in Hamburg.

The entire complex of the penetration of film training and practice on the one hand and Stasi control on the other is still waiting to be dealt with systematically today. In contrast to literature or painting, there is so far no basic work that has adequately dealt with this topic. To make matters worse, the film was and is a rather elitist medium. The HFF was a training center for a tiny minority. It was an immense privilege to be able to study there. And it was probably no coincidence that the students included numerous children of functionaries or well-paid state artists. Anyone who managed to take their diploma at the HFF was usually willing to compromise on the demands of the state.The most striking symptom of this willingness to adapt is the extremely high rate of SED members among the GDR filmmakers. Almost all DEFA directors were also comrades. Only exceptions confirm this rule.
Production site under special control: The DEFA studios in Postdam Babelsberg (& copy dpa report)

After 1990: the Stasi issue in a new light

When the GDR and its opaque censorship system collapsed in autumn 1989, DEFA directors and screenwriters had amassed many untold stories. The taboos were numerous: In addition to age, death, addiction or unpopular youth cultures, the MfS complex was also one of the subjects left out. Some well-known filmmakers, who had themselves been the focus of investigations by the security apparatus, got to work immediately. In 1991 Heiner Carow filmed "Missing" - an East-West love story that is broken by resentment, provincial petty spirit and open and covert "state measures". Frank Beyer also settled accounts in "Der Verdacht" (1991) on the basis of an endangered love with the GDR society, which was riddled with mistrust and spying. Both films were driven by an honest desire for a critical social balance sheet, but suffered from their excessive sense of mission, which stood in the way of an adequate form.

Documentarists, on the other hand, found more effective solutions. What turned out to be cumbersome in the fictitious, developed here immediate and very sustainable energy. The enormity of the story just experienced did not require any narrative-strategic detours, it actually took place as an open-heart operation. In her films, the desire was first formulated to take stock of the legal and political injustice - without really knowing the full scope of the facts and their consequences. Because the files were not yet accessible at this point in time. In "The Black Box" (1991) Tamara Trampe and Johann Feindt portrayed a Stasi officer who, as a university professor, had taught "Operational Psychology" and was thus directly responsible for teaching interrogation and surveillance methods. Ralf Marschalleck also attempted a structural look at the security apparatus in "Strictly confidential or The Inner Constitution" (1990), but at times lost himself in pathetic generalizations instead of sticking to the subject in an analytically strict manner.

The strongest and most subjective contribution to these early attempts to understand the dimensions of incapacitation and repression was made by Sibylle Schönemann with "Locked Time". Immediately after the fall of the Wall, the director, who was imprisoned for almost a year in the early 1980s, went to the places where acts of arbitrariness had happened to her personally: the DEFA feature film studio, the court or the penal system. There she comes across the decision-makers who have just been overwhelmed by the latest events and who are still clearly irritated and who want to get out of the affair more or less skillfully. A short time later, these confrontations would no longer have been possible, since Schönemann would then only have been able to speak to lawyers and not to the perpetrators themselves. "Locked Time" is therefore a unique document of the political-legal, but also moral upheaval, at the same time exposing the opportunistic continuities of German history. In addition, the film thrives on strong aesthetic spaces of tension (camera: Thomas Plenert). Only a few films from contemporary history achieved a comparable correspondence of content and form for the turning point in 1989/90. Like Jean-Luc Godard in "Nouvelle Vague" or Marcel Ophüls in "November Days" (both 1990), Schönemann managed to spark sparks from the apparent standstill in the transition between two historical phases and the associated speechlessness.

A curious side work on the Stasi topic was created in 1992 under the title "The Truth About the Stasi". The low-budget feature film, made by Alexander Zahn with friends and family members, creates a satirical future scenario set in 2008 that assumes that the GDR still exists. Erich Mielke remains at the head of the MfS; his apparent dementia is masked by his comrades. In the meantime, the opposition and state power are so closely intertwined that the truth can no longer be found. The music for this farce was written by the later Rammstein keyboardist Christian Lorenz.

After opening the files

In December 1991 the "Law on the Records of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic" (short: Stasi Records Act) came into force. This provided an instrument that was unique in German history and exemplary for the entire former Eastern Bloc. Scientists and journalists, but above all affected private individuals, were able to gain an insight into the apparatus directed against them or others. For the people shaped by GDR socialism, this meant an enormous phase jump in the perception and reflection of history. What had previously only spread its poison as a rumor was now relentlessly exposed to the public. The perfidious "action plans" of the MfS for the targeted "decomposition" and "liquidation" of suspects as well as the extent of the penetration of friends and betrayal within families was so far only the subject of premonitions. Now the facts were on the table. That wasn't nice - but it was necessary.

One of the unpleasant side effects of that time was the sensational tone of many revelations. After the garish reports in the tabloid press and on television, factual research soon found its way into the public. For production reasons, movies needed a little longer. Michael Gwisdek's feature film "Farewell to Agnes" (1994) is an interesting example of an early concern with the subject after the files were opened. The film, based on a novel by Hans Löffler, was originally intended to be directed by Ulrich Weiß; However, Weiß got out immediately before filming began, so that the main actor quickly took over the direction. Gwisdek plays an unemployed post-reunification scientist who is haunted by a sinister guest who literally knows everything about him. The film is a tragicomic study of the amalgamation of victim and perpetrator constellations and is waiting to be rediscovered.

An important documentary was made back in 1993: "Förräderi" ("Treason") by Björn Cederberg and Fredrik von Krusenstjerna, which is dedicated to one of the most spectacular treason cases within the East Berlin art scene: that of the author and culture manager Alexander ("Sascha") Anderson, alias IM "David Menzer", "Fritz Müller" and "Peters". Co-writer and director Cederberg takes the train to Germany to meet Anderson there and to question the scandalous allegations. As a journalist he was previously in the GDR several times and had built a relationship of trust, almost a friendship, with Anderson. After studying the files in detail, he looked for an encounter and a conversation about the past. The film is based on thorough research, but takes a consistently subjective perspective. From the off, the filmmaker keeps asking himself questions that actually cannot be answered. In addition to the haunting texts (voiced by John Hurt), the music by Astor Piazzolla contributes significantly to rounding off the essay. Without disregarding the facts, the balance of the processes remains open. The moral failure of the poet, however, needs no further comment.

Contemporary history as a material store

At the latest by the beginning of the new millennium, the time lag and the scientifically developed level of knowledge could actually have provided a good basis for mature cinematic confrontations with the Stasi complex and the psychological devastation associated with it. Instead, the successful entertainment film "The Lives of Others" seized the topic in 2005 and created a kind of new interpretative sovereignty. Absurdly, there was no victim in the center of the plot, but an MfS officer who turns into a do-gooder after a religious-musical experience of revelation. This fairytale plot had little to do with the GDR reality, but all the more to do with Hollywood conventions - and was rewarded with the well-known honors and full box office. Due to its success, the film created new patterns in dealing with the MfS. The actual circumstances took a back seat to make it easier to tell. Modular "emotionalization" increasingly took the place of detailed research. Annekatrin Hendel's documentary "Anderson" is also accused of this. Ignoring all the preparatory work that has already been done (including Cederberg's film), an alleged tabula rasa is assumed here in order to find a smoother dramaturgy. The subjective perspective does not serve to find the truth, as in "Förräderi", but remains a mere assertion of the staging. As a result, the film's antihero does not go through any deconstruction, but is once again allowed to work in the service of his own myth-making.

Epilogue: The Stasi about themselves

In the 1980s, surveillance cameras were installed in many public places in the GDR. Mounted on roofs or on facades, these cameras delivered recordings of hot spots in public life free of charge to the security authorities. Although this was not officially mentioned anywhere, it was clear to most citizens by which institution the control centers of the visual control were operated. Surveillance was omnipresent anyway, with the cameras only forming the visible tip of the iceberg. Much was to be guessed. But it was not until 1992 that the archives of the Stasi became accessible that the whole extent became visible, layer by layer. It exceeded all expectations. In addition to megatons of paper, MfS film recordings also came to light: many hours of material on analog film (35 and 16 and 8mm), but also on various video formats. The bundle has now been thoroughly processed. More than 6000 films and videos could be identified and indexed. Many of the secured recordings are usually easily accessible for research purposes after an application to the "Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic" (BStU) In this way, these could be made in secret and never given back to civil society, as it were, recordings intended for the public. Basically three areas of film work can be proven: 1) Observation recordings, documentation of interrogations, arrests, trials, etc .; 2) training and instruction films; 3) Films of self-expression.

"20th Anniversary of the MfS" (1970) and "30th Anniversary of the MfS" (1980) belong to the latter category; they repeat the same rituals over and over again. You can see military roll calls in the courtyard of the Stasi headquarters in Berlin-Lichtenberg and the parade with well-wishers. Minister Erich Mielke accepts congratulations and presents. Among the guests of honor are Erich Honecker and Markus Wolf, as well as creative artists such as Hans-Peter Minetti, Manfred Wekwerth and Herbert Köfer. "Revisor" (1984) is particularly revealing as a training film. It shows the course of a so-called "conspiratorial house search": how access to a suspect's apartment is obtained, how the condition of the rooms is documented and the search is then carried out. The shots of streets and squares take up comparatively little space in the bundle of traditional film documents. The reason for this is simple: Since video cassettes cost West money, they were repeatedly deleted and re-recorded.

"Observations on Alexanderplatz" shows the famous, central location in East Berlin on September 7, 1989, when opposition members had arranged to meet for a symbolic "whistle of protest" against the previous falsification of the GDR local elections. The events recorded by changing cameras in different settings make it clear what interested the comrades and where they suspected potential dangers for the smooth running of everyday public life. In this case, you will soon find what you are looking for and take action. A television team from the West unpacks its equipment and is soon afterwards questioned by a police officer for identification papers. A little later there was a commotion at the fountain: a man, defending himself wildly, was carried to a vehicle by several plainclothes officers. The scenery is captured by several cameras -. In the extensive bpb production "Feindbilder - The photos and videos of the Stasi", a depressing compilation was made in Chapter 2. The recordings provide impressive evidence of the mania for control of a society that ultimately perished of itself, had to perish.

All in all, the filmic self-testimonies of the MfS turn out to be sobering. The films rarely have opening and closing credits, are often very poorly crafted, and almost rudimentary. In addition to the subliminal formal quality, there are clumsy dramaturgical and staging attempts at implementation, which not infrequently release involuntary comedy. Laughter, however, gets stuck in your throat. "Lucifer's Ordinance - No Everyday Story for Chekists" (1986), for example, reconstructs the case of a customs officer who was convicted in 1984 for "establishing hostile connections". In order to "artistically" enhance this story, documentary elements and hits were used in the film in addition to original interrogations. The result, which appears extremely clumsy, looks like pure real satire. It also shows, however, that the media's omnipotence fantasies of the MfS were not that far removed from a parody made after the end of the GDR such as "The Truth About the Stasi", that low-budget film by Alexander Zahn from 1992 , which describes what it would actually be like if the GDR continued to live.