Art piece probes the uses and abuses of film


on May 14, 2010 by John P. McCarthy

In her self-styled "ciné-constellation" about the former East Germany, Chicago-born Amy Siegel ruminates on how voyeuristic authority can shape the psyche of a divided nation. An ideal companion piece to 2007's Oscar winner The Lives of Others, which focuses on a Stasi captain who questions his surveillance work, Siegel's visual essay also links the craft of filmmaking, including her own "means of production," to political and cultural power. Although it plays more like a traditional documentary than she may wish, DDR/DDR's commercial appeal is extremely limited, meaning it's better suited to the classroom than even the artiest of arthouses.

Big Brother really was watching (and listening) inside the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Learning about the extent of the communist state's audio-visual eavesdropping is a reminder that issues concerning privacy and technology have only become more pressing since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

DDR/DDR itself resembles a dossier compiled by a clever but outwardly unassuming spy. Narrating, appearing on camera conducting interviews and acting in staged tableaus, Siegel has a deadpan delivery that belies her perspicuity and tenacity (think Jenna Fischer of The Office). She must have spent months combing the Stasi archives and the surveillance footage; the audiotapes she unearths and analyzes are fascinating historical artifacts. Yet Siegel is more taken with the equipment used by the infamous secret police force to monitor citizens-cameras, lenses, tape recorders, plus the paraphernalia used to conceal them. She compares the camera lens to a gun barrel, referencing the language of filmmaking ("shot," shooting," etc.) to underscore the analogy. The implication, familiar to students of film theory, is that pointing a camera (or a microphone) at someone is inherently invasive and manipulative. That one of the world's foremost lens makers, Carl Zeiss AG, is an East German concern, adds another hue and level of refraction to Siegel's prism.

The Stasi's "targeted harassment" of the population, particularly the widespread use of informants, had a strong psychological dimension, which aligns with Siegel's preoccupation with psychoanalysis (see her 2004 film Empathy). Here, she uses interviews with two psychotherapists who practiced in East Germany before and after reunification to examine power dynamics between the individual and the state. She also elicits a stream of testimony from an extremely forthcoming ex-Stasi operative and spends a great deal of time looking for visual clues inside the offices of Stasi head Erich Mielke. Not surprisingly, there's talk of the Berlin Wall being a screen on which both sides project their views of the other.

The idea that the apparatus of cinema is akin to those of hunting and warfare, and that every act of photographic representation implies domination and control, brings to mind the belief ascribed to some primitive tribes that when your picture is taken your spirit is stolen. This leads us to the most bizarre parts of DDR/DDR, namely, discussions with East German devotees of Native-American culture. These Indian hobbyists, who were permitted to indulge their penchant prior to reunification, are interviewed during a contemporary jamboree replete with teepees and authentic costumes. They offer insights into their avocation while also providing a natural segue for Siegel's introduction to the series of 12 Westerns that were produced by the East German national film studio decades before reunification. Communism's identification with Native Americans as communal peoples exploited by rapacious, white imperialists makes perfect sense and slots perfectly into Siegel's themes (as an ironic aside, it also jives well with James Cameron's Avatar).

Her insistence on maintaining a meta perspective results in some successful Brechtian moments during which the curtain is pulled back on her own process-as when lenses are changed during the middle of an interview or when her conversation with an East German sound engineer is recorded on 1960s-era equipment by the interviewee himself. An example of a less successful interlude is the recurring glimpse of a man (who turns out to be the star of The Architects, the last movie made by the DDR's film studio in 1989) walking on an imaginary tightrope in various locations. Still more obvious and extraneous are a segment during which Siegel and various associates debate how to translate the German term Wende into English and one in which old recording equipment is thrown off the back of a pick-up truck as it moves along a country road.

Clearly, Siegel wants to disrupt the viewer's gaze with these clumsily didactic, performance-art-style passages, but they don't add very much and actually enhance her film's more conventionally discursive passages. It's hard to gainsay her underlying claim that filmmaking is at root an authoritarian pursuit and that the filmmaker wields power over those she shoots and then subjects to her vision. But because Siegel sometimes conveys this thesis in belabored fashion you have to conclude that, while highly informative and evocative, DDR/DDR would benefit from more editing. That brings us to the ultimate form of control and manipulation in the filmmaking realm-final cut.

Distributor: Anthology Film Archives
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Amie Siegel
Genre: Documentary; English- and German-languages, subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 135 min.
Release date: May 7 NY


Tags: Amie Siegel

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