In her book Oni (Them), the journalist Teresa Toranska profiled Poland’s hardcore Stalinists, what the Poles used to call beton or concrete. When the book came out in 1985, it became an underground classic. The world of the “true believers” was in its twilight years, and soon it would be extinguished altogether. But with her interviews, Toranska managed to convey how a small, Stalin-backed group could rule over Poland in those early, post-World War II years. This was a country that had a government in exile in London, that had a large army of resistance, that pushed back against collectivization, and that was eager to assert its independence. Poland was a deeply divided country during the Cold War. The success of “them” in installing a hated regime generated an equally persistent “us” that rose up at periodic intervals (1956, 1968, 1981) before finally shaking off the Soviet yoke.
Every country in Eastern Europe had “them” – the Communists who put the Soviet Union above any national priorities. But in East Germany, a more potent “them” eventually emerged: the Stasi. This was a much more numerous, much more organized force. The Stasi consisted of a vast bureaucracy of over 90,000 employees and 300,000 informants. It is precisely because they are so numerous that the Stasi has proven a much more enduring “them.” It’s not just a relatively small group of sad, old men who were once powerful. Germany is still dealing with “them.”
Stefan Roloff is an artist and filmmaker, best known perhaps for the video art known as Moving Painting. He has done a documentary about his father, an anti-Nazi resistance fighter and member of the Red Orchestra. More recently, he has been conducting a series of interviews with the victims of the Stasi in preparation to produce a feature film. In January, I talked with him in the Berlin neighborhood of Zehlendorf about “them.”
“When major papers like Der Spiegel or Focus publish the biographies of former Stasi collaborators, and people find out who they are, they are still not removed: because of some technicality, because they are employees at a certain governmental level, because they work in the police force, or in the tax authorities where they have a lot of power to screw around with people,” he told me. “They also are in real estate, where there’s a lot of money. They are in security firms. But these are the more obvious places where you would expect people like that. The thing to really point out is that they are part of very essential and powerful institutions that are funding political projects about the past. They are also writing books about the past, meaning that they present what it was from their perspective. This would be like if I focused on Hitler building the Autobahn instead of the concentration camps, just to make sure you remember what Nazism was really about.”
Because of the popularity of the film The Lives of Others, we think we know something about “them” – their motivations, their regrets. The Stasi agent at the heart of that movie proves, in the end, to be a “good man.” This portrait didn’t go over particularly well with people in former East Germany. Roloff explained, “Imagine we’re in 1965, 20 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, and a German person makes a movie about the good Gestapo man and shows it in Tel Aviv.”
We talked about the parts of the Stasi archives that have not been made public, the challenge of revisiting traumatic issues through interviews, and some of the stories he’s learned during this process.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when the Berlin Wall fell?
On the day the Wall opened or fell or was pushed down — ultimately I’ve come to the conclusion that it was pushed down from the East, that Regan and Kohl had nothing to do with it, and Gorbachev had a little bit to do with it – I woke up in my apartment in the East Village. I was walking across Astor Place to go to my studio on Broadway and Houston, and suddenly I saw The New York Times. There was this wide, black-and-white picture of people standing on the Berlin Wall, and I thought I was dreaming. I considered going home, going to bed once more and waking up so I could then start my real day. But I thought, “You know you’re dreaming, you could walk on and see what else happens.” So I went to my studio, and there was my answering machine blinking because everybody from Berlin had called me and left messages. So I found out that, yeah, it was true.
You grew up here in Germany, in Berlin?
I grew up in West Berlin.
And you came to the States when you were relatively young?
I came to the States in the 1970s. I always felt at home in New York, much more than Berlin. And so at some point, after visiting New York a lot, I decided, “Why shouldn’t I live there? If I feel more at home there, why not be in the place you are actually at home.”
You worked as a painter in New York, which is a great place of course to be a painter.
Yes, it was perfect. It was the early 1980s. It was a good time for a European painter, especially German painters in New York. For me it was kind of easy to work, to live for my work.
When did you start making films?
Very early. I started getting into filmmaking when I was still in art academy in West Berlin. But I think there is no difference between painting and filmmaking. I’ll give you an example. I said before I like to do portraits. If I invite you to come to my studio, and I paint your portrait, we are going to be working over a long period of time, for weeks, for months perhaps. As I apply all these layers of paint to my canvas over these different days that we have our sessions, you are going to be in different moods, as will I. Some days you will be talkative, in a good mood; some days you will have a problem, some unpaid bill whatever. It will be the same with me. And all these feelings enter the canvas layer by layer.
When I moved to New York I was able to realize that when you stand in front of a really good portrait, it’s going to be alive. It’s really going to look at you. Not that it follows you with its eyes. No, I mean its soul is there, because of the layers underneath. So, for me that was kind of like early filmmaking, because you have a piece that is created over time. And even though you think you only perceive the surface of it, you actually perceive the layers underneath. I started to paint and film and paint and film, and show the metamorphosis that a painting goes through until it evolves to its final stage. I could tell you for three hours what else I’ve done, how that evolved ultimately into actual filmmaking if you will. But that’s not the subject of your interview.
And when did you start inserting issues here in Germany or in the region into your filmmaking?
It started with those moving paintings that I did. In 1989 I was invited to a show in a museum in Washington DC, and I had reached a very high level with the work I had done. I thought, “I have to change now.” When I came back to New York, I decided to do something totally different that had nothing to do with layers. I went horseback riding in West Virginia, and I accidently discovered a beautiful building that was a hotel but had once been a women’s prison. Suddenly I was before a 3D representation of my concept. This was a very long, complex project. After I was done with it, it entailed a prison suicide, government corruption, all sorts of things.
When I was finished with the project, I went back to my childhood home in my parent’s house. I saw that my parents had grown old. They were very relaxed. And that’s when I realized that, because my life had been very busy (I’d not only lived in New York but in Mexico and various other places), I had never asked my father about his resistance against the Nazis. I suddenly realized my father’s life also had been a discrepancy between surface and interior. Living as a resistance fighter after the war in Germany was not an easy thing because people didn’t really appreciate it. They didn’t really appreciate resistors unless they were dead, and then they were cool. If they weren’t dead, they posed the automatic question: “So, what did you do?” For that reason, it was a major subject. To keep it short, I finished his portrait before he died. I wanted to get to know him before he died and that was the thing that most interested me: how did he get into prison and how did he get out. And I uncovered an amazing story. When I was done with that I also wrote a book about it. It was a multi-media package.
When I was finished with it, people from former East Germany approached me, people who had been in the resistance there and had had very similar experiences after the war. Of course, in East Germany they couldn’t just kill people. They couldn’t send them to camps, but instead they could psychologically destroy them. And the structure of the resistance network in the so-called Communist east was very similar to what would have been under the Nazis or what we can see today in Iran and other countries, where people have to fight against totalitarianism. So, that film project about my father evolved into a very broad but thematically focused project. To date I have interviewed about 65 people who have had experiences with resistance.
For instance, zersetzung (decomposition) was a secret Stasi technique that they applied to dissidents. They would enter your home or place of work, and they would change things around so you would start doubting yourself, start asking yourself, “Did I put this here?”
We have an old expression for that …
So, they did that and I interviewed people who experienced that. I interviewed people who were imprisoned for their political beliefs as well as those on the fringe of the politically imprisoned. By “on the fringe,” I mean people who applied for emigration and would be imprisoned for that. It was an arbitrary system. And some of these people just lived in niches, not partaking in society, not being for or against anything. I am now preparing a feature film.
From one of the 65 interviews?
Yes and no. Yes, it is one of the stories. But it also at the same time contains elements of the others. Once you deal with a feature film, it is a very different project. It’s not about history anymore. It’s not necessarily about the exact facts anymore, although you don’t want to enhance or lessen what has taken place. But I could, for example, make a person out of a kaleidoscope of three people. I am not bound to the exact portrait of one person any longer. I can put the experiences of others into the life of this person because they would fit. And the ultimate thing with the movie is the dramaturgical aspect: how can you move it forward? Can you keep the viewer on the edge of his seat while he watches it? As cynical as that may sound, once you make a film about it, it isn’t about human rights violations anymore. Of course, that’s still the subject, but when you work on it, it becomes something else. It becomes: how can I package this so than an audience gets it.
You have to do that in the theatre too. You can’t lose the audience for any period of time, not even a minute, or you are dead on stage.
The moment you lose them is when they walk out, and that’s bad.
So that’s what you are working on now. But you said you have another film that’s going to be premiering later this month?
No, that’s an art installation. I knew that when I went to West Virginia, when I walked into that hotel, I was opening a Pandora’s box where a lot of stuff would come out, and it did. It was a long line of things that related to my life, that related to me, though I wouldn’t have thought that I would find in West Virginia something that related to my life coming from West Berlin. I was also lucky, because the commissioner of corrections in West Virginia once warned me that I should be very careful. People wanted to get rid of me, and you can do that easily in West Virginia in a hunting accident — it’s not a big deal. And he explained to me the reason why it hadn’t happened yet. He said that nobody could fathom that a foreign artist from New York City would come down there to investigate a story like that, meaning I must be an FBI agent investigating them.
Anyway, this whole process evolved into my father’s story and then something else related to the moment when life takes you in an arbitrary fashion and transports you elsewhere, be it a prison or the world of gas-lighting. Recently I’ve been thematically confronted with the stories of two people. One is a woman from Sudan who had to escape or she would have been killed in that country, and the other is a man from Iran who would have faced the same fate. They came as refugees to Germany. Again I have to tell you that, as an artist and filmmaker, the subject doesn’t interest me on a human rights level. It interests me on a conceptual level: how we are propagandistically influenced by the press and how the press portrays these countries and their people whereas, in reality, they are like us. Because I like these people personally, I’ve created a portrait of each of them, which may also result in documentary movies, or some sort of movies. But I will show it next month in my gallery in Berlin.
It will be an installation: a tent. Because a tent is a symbol of Occupy, and they occupied the plaza in front of the Brandenburg Gate to make people aware that the Germans put them into camps. They were put into camps that were not quite as bad as they used to be, but still they had to do forced labor for very little money in these camps, and they were not allowed to leave. They were basically forced to deal with the question of whether they should go back to where they would be killed or kill themselves in the camp – which some people did – or just fall into a depression. And these are the best people that come, otherwise they wouldn’t be persecuted in their countries. For me, this was a very interesting subject about standing up and recognizing something, which we all have to do every day. Nobody lives in a perfect world. But can I make it better or make it more livable?
Resistance seems to be an important theme in your work.
It became that because of my father’s background, though I never really felt connected so much to the history or mentality of my family. My family was a very conservative bunch. I like them, but I don’t agree with them on lots of issues.
I want to come back to your current work, but first I want to go back to 1989/1990. The Wall falls, you’re in New York City, and 1989 was also when you went to West Virginia. So even though you were in West Virginia and somewhat removed at least geographically from this place, did you follow what was going on?
I don’t read papers very much. I hate to say this, but I think they’re superficial work. They’re kind of boring, and in a political world things repeat like a hamster in a wheel until it finally breaks. Rarely do you see something happen, like the revolutions in North Africa. Normally it’s bureaucracy and arms sales and things like that. I didn’t go back to Germany until about a year later, that’s how much it interested me. What I saw in the media and the papers and also in other places about the subsequent developments in Germany was something I would call kitsch. People who didn’t know each other were suddenly hugging in the streets like long-lost brothers and sisters. I thought, “I don’t want anything to do with that. And this is going to end badly.” You meet somebody and hug them, and suddenly a year later this person is a mortal enemy. But it’s too late: he’s already in your house.
It’s the inevitable conclusion of all kitsch.
So when you did come back the kitsch — the hugging — was over?
No, when I came back honestly, I saw that the Wall was down, and I saw a couple of rather sad-looking places in the east. But I visited my friends in West Berlin and I must tell you, nobody from my generation has lived in the east. They all live in former West Berlin. It’s like West Berlin still exists. This place here, where we are in Zellendorf, is part of it: the more boring part. But there are beautiful parts of west Berlin where friends of mine live and that’s where they stayed. Through the generations, the people from the east and even their kids mostly still stay split between East and West.
One of the reasons is that, whether we are atheists or not, in the west we have a religious tradition based on Christianity, so there is a potential of an afterlife, of some spiritual other world. Communism, although it ultimately resembles Christianity in my eyes, had a different materialistic thought, that there is no other life and there is nothing after death, which gives your life a very different meaning. And even though the Church played a large role in the revolution in the east, the true education that the majority of these people had in schools was materialistic. They were told in school that there is no god, there is no afterlife, it is all hocus-pocus. So you come to Berlin and you see a city that is made out of two parts, but they speak the same dialect, look the same, having the same passport, have their great grandparents living on the same block. And yet they are so different from each other. And people don’t deal with those differences, because it’s so important politically that we all have to be together instead of recognizing that it’s beautiful when people are different.
When I talked to the eastern Germans in 1990, but also subsequently, I think they were the most surprised by the reaction of the western Germans. And this was after the moment of all this hugging. They were surprised that the West Germans were not interested in their experiences or even, in some cases, pretended knowledge they didn’t have. To give you a very quick anecdote, we brought a group of eastern Germans and western Germans to Korea to talk about post-unification issues. On the panel western Germans would say “well this is the way it is in east Germany,” and eastern Germans on the panel would say, “no it really wasn’t like that,” and the western Germans would say “well I have friends over there who told me that.” Where did that come from? And why has it persisted for so long?
There are again a couple of reasons for that. A good example of the phenomenon that you just described was the film The Lives of Others, which was hated by people in the east and for a variety of reasons. But the main reason you could give is: imagine we’re in 1965, 20 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, and a German person makes a movie about the good Gestapo man and shows it in Tel Aviv. There is a lot of that in there: to pick out a subject that is really so terrifying that the people themselves can’t often face it, because they are traumatized and would not necessarily revisit those issues. With my interviews, of course, it’s part of my job to revisit these issues with them, but it’s tough and it costs a lot of energy and it also gives me a certain responsibility once I’ve broached the topic to continue with the work. I can’t just say, “Give me a story” and then “goodbye, it was nice to meet you!”
So, that is one of the reasons. But it’s also quite a phenomenal thing that Germany, after its one experiment with a republic, became one of the worst dictatorships that ever existed. So much for that first attempt at democracy: these thugs just came by during the elections and sprayed everything, and everybody was a coward and everybody shut up for whatever reasons. I’m not talking only German Protestants, but Jewish people too. Everybody went along with it and imagined it couldn’t be that bad. They all created this thing together, and after it was over, how can you face something like that? You can’t.
That’s when the Cold War started. And during those many years of the Cold War, West Germans became very cool, very environmental, very human-rights-observing good people. They became so “good” that these people in East Berlin reminded them of exactly what they would have been too had the Wall been built on the other side. When you can’t face something, you come up with a lot of theories about what’s going on so that you can explain it to yourself. I’ve seen people judging these people from the east, looking down at them, dealing with them like second-class citizens. It’s kind of racist and kind of similar to what happens between Blacks and Whites in the States.
We have Obama, so that we can say that there is discrimination against African Americans. And Germany has Angela Merkel, so that Germans can say that there is no discrimination against people from the East.
There you are, exactly.
You mentioned where people live is in some sense being passed down to the next generation. Are these sentiments also passed down to the next generation?
Of course they are. I think it takes more than one or two generations: it takes ages for those things to disappear. It could be good for people to exercise some brainpower and deal with the hard questions. It could broaden horizons. People are always so shocked about what happened here in the 1930s. They say that Germany has always been a very advanced country of literature, music, culture, especially during the Weimar Republic. What went on in theatre and movies is unmatched until today. “How could that happen?” they ask. They think that it’s bizarre that a country of potato-eating, mediocre boors can also have this other extreme. But it makes sense to me. It’s like a pressure cooker, and inside there’s a big potato stew, and if you open it just a little bit: bam, and it all comes out!
To go back to the subject of phone-tapping and people’s experiences under the Stasi, I am curious whether you think the Stasi issue could have been handled differently after 1989? Should the files have been published in their entirety? Should there have been more discussion? Should there have been different institutions created?
There was a hotel in the east called “Neptune.” It’s by the Baltic Sea. There were many Western politicians and powerful West German people who went there for conferences. They were middle-aged or older, fat. And yet these beautiful young girls were really attracted to them. And they could never face the fact that personal attraction might not have been the motivation behind the behavior of these girls. And of course the hotel rooms they went to with the girls were bugged. If you truly opened the Stasi archives, all that stuff would have come out.
And that would not only have been a disaster for western German politics but for the Western world period: for the economic structure, for everything. It would have meant people being kicked out of their jobs or forced to resign. It would have caused mayhem, and that is why Kohl put the lid on it. That’s why Kohl made sure to emphasize that the most important issue was the reunification of Germany, not dealing with the terror of that system. We had the same problem after the Nazi era too. And we know how many people the CIA alone imported to the United States, people who did atrocious acts but had special abilities. I say that without any emotions or whatever you want to attach to the sentiment that “it’s never going to be like that, not in this world, not on this planet, that’s the way business is done.”
Was that awareness present among eastern Germans you interviewed?
The people that I interviewed were, with a couple of exceptions, sort of an elite because of their experiences, so of course they have a broader sense of what went on. If their trauma allowed them to look beyond it, they would know that.
You began to talk earlier about why you thought the first East German elections ended up the way they did.
There were different reasons. One of them was, of course, that Helmut Kohl had basically run his course. He was a big, fat, tired person, he was corrupt, and he didn’t do much. Had the Wall not come down, Kohl would have never been reelected. But when the Wall came down, it was a big political point for him to use. He had to make his deals with the Stasi. There were a couple of political parties in the east, a block of parties in addition to the Communist Party, including the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the East. This was, of course, an absurdity. The CDU existed in the East and you could vote for it, but it wasn’t Christian democratic. Like many of the churches, it was completely soaked with Stasi people. It had to make compromises with them. For Kohl, the best way of making sure that he would be reelected was to use the eastern CDU as a party that was supposedly part of the western CDU, even though they had in reality been mortal enemies during the Cold War. By pretending that they were all together in the CDU, Kohl brought into his ranks another big army of Stasi and people who worked for the regime.
What was very interesting is how Kohl and the CDU managed to manipulate German reunification. Because in the beginning, the revolutionaries and the people around Neues Forum, once they caught their momentum, had hundreds of thousands of regular people walking in the streets. They had a chant, “wir sind das Volk” – “we are the people.” If you think about Communism always saying, “we are the people,” this was an ironic thing, but it was also a beautiful thing. It meant we are truly the ones. But then it became “we are one people” – “wir sind ein Volk” — and that happened through the infiltration of the CDU. Someone I interviewed in Leipzig saw an expensive car with the M for Munich sign pull up with a whole trunkful of German flags. Munich is basically a stronghold of the CDU as well as the Christian Social Union (CSU), which is the even more conservative wing (like the Republicans and the Tea Partiers in the United States). They handed these flags out to the demonstrators and said “wir sind ein Volk.” And so these people started walking with these flags, the same as always, but now they are marching for democracy. It was like in Cabaret. They started singing a song, with a certain text and a certain rhythm, and all of a sudden they are all walking and talking this bullshit and they don’t even know what it means anymore, but it basically says the opposite of what they said before and they think it’s great. And the funny thing is how cheap these CDU people were: the demonstrators had to return the flags afterwards!
Do you think that those civic movements like Neues Forum have had any lasting impact on any part of German life, whether we are talking about Zehlendorf or Prenzlauer Berg?
I don’t think so, and that’s also why it’s important to portray it. People who were powerful were pushed out of their positions. People still have a hard time facing the fact that the Stasi killed people, that they were a murderous bunch. They didn’t kill people with guns or gas. They used different methods. They would put up X-ray machines, and people would die of cancer 10 years later. They took away the power from all the people who had been influential at the beginning of the protest, before the Wall fell. Plus these people were seriously tired when the Wall came down because they’d fought for 10-15 years against a terrible bureaucratic wall. So when these young people came and said, “This is great what you’re doing, can we help you?” they said “yes” without realizing that these people were Stasi. In a way it was more than a human being could take. In a way their power was neutralized by the boorish mass, as usual.
Today we live in a different time. We have cell phones. We face different issues. And everybody thinks more about how they can make a career rather than what the historical context is or any bullshit like that. It doesn’t interest them. I can relate, but still there is great beauty and human dignity in the existence of something like those movements. I would rather portray an event or a person who either has dignity or is really cheap. I would go to the extremes. Since the dignified came my way, instead of the really campy, I’ve done that.
But you reserve the right to go back to the campy.
Totally. How can I help myself? I am an artist.
If Neues Forum has not had an enduring impact, unfortunately it seems that the Stasi has. It keeps coming up with politicians, like Gregor Gysi. This is the obvious way the Stasi comes up, but are there other ways the Stasi has an impact?
Oh big time! They have spread their people in foundations that are funding projects about the former GDR. They are so smart because they welcome this auseinandersetzung, the dealing with the past. Let’s put it this way. Imagine I am a murderer and I come to you and say, “Murder is a terrible thing, and I know it’s been done, but I will do everything to talk about it, so let’s talk about it.” Meanwhile I distract you from the fact that I’ve killed a couple of people. It seems like I’m talking about some killers, but I am not one of them. Also, I am trying to say it wasn’t that bad, that not everybody was a murderer. So you get into very murky waters.
When major papers like Der Spiegel or Focus publish the biographies of former Stasi collaborators, and people find out who they are, they are still not removed: because of some technicality, because they are employees at a certain governmental level, because they work in the police force, or in the tax authorities where they have a lot of power to screw around with people. They also are in real estate, where there’s a lot of money. They are in security firms. But these are the more obvious places where you would expect people like that. The thing to really point out is that they are part of very essential and powerful institutions that are funding political projects about the past. They are also writing books about the past, meaning that they present what it was from their perspective. This would be like if I focused on Hitler building the Autobahn instead of the concentration camps, just to make sure you remember what Nazism was really about.
Are they are operating according to a sense of mission circa 1988/1989? Do they still believe they have a collective goal?
Oh yes, they do. I know a couple of people like that. I even have friendships with some of them. And you may wonder why, after all I’ve told you. Part of the reason is that the families of resistors under the Nazi time were split up into two camps. Half of them were instrumentalized by the east as great anti-fascist fighters and the other were instrumentalized by the west as traitors. Both were wrong. So I know people who have had their connections with the Stasi, and we have interesting relations because they know what I am doing and they suppress that as much as possible because otherwise they couldn’t hang out with me.
There is one difference between the Nazis and the Communists that I see. Communism originally had an idealistic base to it. Don’t forget the fighters in the Spanish Civil War: people who went to fight against fascism and for something really good. Little did they know that a fascist-like Stalin was arising as the representation of the bloc they were supporting, and reporting to, and they became collaborators without even knowing it. They became part of a system of spies, originally because they were fighting the evil aristocracy and capital and exploitation. They were thinking they were doing something good and then they slipped into something else.
So, yes, I think these people are very present as a group. Because for them, it is very easy to switch back to the Spanish Civil War moment, the revolutionary romanticism that is at the beginning of a system like that. And then they dream that they are not bad, that they are part of freedom, and they don’t face the fact that all they’ve been doing is support fascism in a different color.
I want to ask you about looking ahead at the relationship between Germany east and west. Do you think anything can be done at this point to deal with the issues of the past in a constructive way that can then lead to a different Germany?
That is the question: how much can you do to better the world? And we know that we can’t better the world. You can analyze it. You can add your own thing. I am not Christian, but there is one great thing Martin Luther said: “Even if the world came to an end tomorrow I’d still plant a seed today.” It makes sense in an atheist way. Because if the world comes to an end and there is no god, it still makes sense to do something.
People are going to stay the way they are. During the 1970s and 1980s, I had conversations with Jewish friends in New York who thought that Hitler could have only happened in Germany. We had seriously heated arguments about that. I always said, “No, a guy like that could have happened wherever history made it possible for him to appear and do his shit.” And then suddenly, when the younger Bush started making his big mess, these very same people said, “he’s like Hitler, it’s the same thing.” Of course the United States didn’t commit a Holocaust with millions of dead, but if we had taken some close-up pictures of some of the atrocities that happened during that time, we would have had some more images that fall into that category.
So, can you do anything about it? No. I think you can raise awareness. You can try and maintain some sort of freedom-thinking in people. You can live well. We can sit in this restaurant and talk openly about issues, and I don’t have to watch if those two ladies over there are working for the secret police and they’d report me and then I’d be picked up. That is a big difference. But I don’t think people really know what it means, because they haven’t seen this other side in western democracies. They think democracy goes on and on and on, and they don’t know how quickly it can tilt. So it’s really important to talk about what individuals can do, not the masses as in “the masses will become revolutionary or law-abiding or Left or Right or believers of god or the devil, depending on what you teach them and how you lead them.” You know, they’ll never be really smart for they are basically a pathetic bunch.
When you look back to what you were thinking in 1989/1990, have you had any profound second thoughts since that period?
Oh definitely. When I heard about East before, I thought that everybody kneels before the Stasi. I’ve come to realize it’s not that way, that there was a certain group of people among them that seriously fought back. You can always say that all Persians are communists or all Americans are imperialist or all Muslims are religious freaks, but we forget that within their countries there’s a large group of people that really have no inner connection to that and this group is larger then we think. But there are also many swing voters, so you have to keep them fed with good information. There is always, in every country, a small elite of people who think differently and take risks because they see more. They basically have no choice. It’s not that they are better people, they just see more. If you see somebody killing somebody you can’t just walk by. But if somebody one block over kills another person and I don’t know it, what’s it going to be to me?
You mentioned that one of the reasons why people like your father were often ignored was because their experience raised the question, “Why didn’t I resist?” Did you get similar reactions toward resistors when you were working on the project with the Stasi?
Definitely. People would try to edge me out of this thing, saying that I wouldn’t be able to judge because I’m not only from the West but I’m also American. You may not know it, but that’s my nationality, and so to them I am sort of an enemy already. But if you truly want to find out something, you enter a jungle and a lot of snakes and cats are coming at you from the air or from the ground, and if they don’t kill you, you will eventually find what it is that you are looking for. Eventually the jungle will look like a regular landscape, and you will know how to deal with it. Before and during the 1990s, I had problems with historians who didn’t appreciate my taking on this big subject that they themselves should have tackled. They were all Ph.Ds, and I was just an artist doing it out of my own sense of portraiture. So I already knew what it means when people try to take a swing at you for their own personal reasons. It doesn’t matter.
When you are looking for stories, are you looking for stories that are representative, or are you looking for stories that are just interesting?
Let me give you an example. Roman Polanski’s subject was the locking up of people, which probably had to do with his first couple of years under the Nazis in the Polish ghetto and things he learned in order to survive. Every one of his movies deals with somebody who was locked in by some force. The worst thing that happened to him was the Manson murders, which he was lucky not to be there for, but his wife and his unborn child were. And then you have this story about the girl that he statutory raped, so he was locked up in Switzerland in a bizarre way, not being allowed to leave his home. If you have a subject, it will come at you in different forms and shades, and it’s not because it’s interesting. Of course you have to make it interesting for people, but also to you yourself.
I’ve always thought the word “interesting” is really suspicious. “Oh that is really interesting.” What does that really mean? It means bullshit. What exactly piques your interest? Really, it’s whether we have a subject, or we don’t. The reasons we have a subject are different. My reason, if I look back, may have come from growing up in a dualistic world in Cold War West Berlin, seeing both sides without seeing them, seeing them clearly without fathoming what was going on. From that, through paintings that were done in the 1700s in my studies, this phenomenon of surface and interior, or what meets the eye and what’s beyond, came to me and I worked on it and it will always be my subject. It will be the red thread that goes through my work: authoritarian systems, human rights violations, all that stuff. But it’s not that I’m a human rights activist. I would always fight for my friends. I believe in friendship. I don’t believe in societies or the good of societies or even the potential of societies. Society is basically a corrupt bunch that helps each other, and I am part of it.
You mentioned that you are thinking of doing something theatrical with your material.
I’ve done 65 interviews to date that I’ve done (and when I am finished with this project it will be at least double that). It will be sort of an archive of the people that suffered in East Germany under that system. Within these many interviews there are some that stand out more than others, of course, and one was particular amazing because it was the story of a gay guy. East Germany legalized homosexuality before West Germany did. But in reality the Communists didn’t treat homosexuals well at all. This guy’s story was really amazing. He was imprisoned and had terrible experiences until, finally, he left for the West. In 1989, he got a call from his dad who told him that the Berlin Wall fell. And this guy said to his father, “Come on, don’t tell me this. It’s a horrible thing!” And he hung up. But his dad called back and told him it was really true. This guy was probably the only person who was not happy about the fall of the Wall because he thought that his previous persecutors were going to flood the West and he would have to live among them again. He thought he’d put an entire world between himself and then, but he hadn’t.
So he moved to San Francisco and lived there for six years. He had an unhappy love affair, and he was homesick, so he came back to Berlin. He worked at KaDeWe, which is a huge supermarket in west Berlin. New York doesn’t have anything like it: a fancy department store with an awesome food court. He worked there in the Davidoff Cigar department as a manager and salesperson. And one day this man came in who was good looking, who smelled good, and who asked him what cigars Fidel Castro was smoking. He provided the answer, and the customer bought these cigars for 1600 Marks. And suddenly he realized that this guy was his former interrogator from the Stasi prison. The Stasi had selected this interrogator because they had profiled him to look like the type of guy that he liked.
So he says to the customer, “Excuse me, we know each other from such and such prison and you were my interrogator.” All he’d hoped for was something like, “Yes, I am sorry” or “yes but it was the times we were living in.” Instead, this former interrogator yelled at him, “How dare you talk to me! You were a criminal in our system and and you were locked up for good reasons.” He had a serious breakdown. Afterwards, though, he overcame that and was very active in going to schools and telling people the truth about what actually went on in the DDR while everybody else was hiding. This is a very powerful story and has all these elements in it. And because he is charismatic, he would even be a good person to play himself.
So you were thinking after the interview you would work with him and turn it into a play.
Yes, but I didn’t do that. I have a partner in this project, and she is more of a writer than I am. She already wrote part of the monologue of the play, which involves one other person who comes in with different disguises or different personalities, playing boyfriends, interrogators, friends, parents, nurses, all of whom enter and leave his life, triggering things at certain moments.
That would be powerful, but also extraordinarily painful, and painful for him to play it as well.
Yes, but liberating. For him his liberation came through talking about it in schools. And I’ve seen that in a lot of people. For example, I did an interview with a woman whose parents were Stasi. Her parents were friends with the neighbors they were spying on. She was a little kid when the neighbors died, and she walked over because she wanted to ask her father something and she knew that he was in the neighbor’s house. He was in the house while the neighbor who had killed himself was still sitting in his kitchen where he had turned up the gas. Her father was already busy going though the cupboards and everything for the Stasi. It was very heavy. Very, very heavy. After the interview was done, I had to sit for virtually four hours with her until she was back to normal again. That’s what I have to offer them — that I am there. I become like a shrink in a way, temporarily. And I have to take that seriously.
They call it the talking cure, after all.
And ultimately it is.
I’m planning to turn these interviews into a one-man show. I would be playing the different people, probably a dozen different characters. Fortunately I don’t have to think about it until September, when I will start writing it.
In some ways you are realizing what has been put inside of you by doing all these interviews. And, of course, we have these techniques for dealing with people who were traumatized. I feel like I am like a lightening rod. Bang – it goes through the rod and the energy is diverted into the earth. But still something stays with us, and we have to let it out. And if we can’t let it out, we would get sick from doing work like that.
When I am done with an interview, I usually have no idea what these people talked about. I focus during the interview, and I know what they are talking about and I want to hear more about this or that. But at the moment that I am done, it’s like I never asked them anything. If I have to travel somewhere to do an interview, I may do two. But I try to do one a day. Because there’s all the intensity and afterwards there can be a break. That’s also why I am empty afterwards.
Berlin, January 29, 2013