In Nina Toussaint and Massimo Iannetta‘s documentary “The Decomposition of the Soul” two ex-inmates of Berlin-Hohenschonhausen, one of the most infamous Stasi prisons of East Germany, revisit the site of their incarceration. Sigrid Paul was arrested for harboring escapees from the Soviet zone, and once imprisoned was continually promised and denied a reunion with her sick child in West Germany; Hartmut Richter was detained for transporting political dissenters across the border and spent fifteen years behind bars. As they walk through airless cells, hallways, and interrogation rooms where psychological torture was daily meted out, they explain the prison’s grueling routine, constant surveillance, and their tormentors’ methods.
The Stasis’ main technique was instilling in its prisoners total tedium and obedience by prohibiting any stimulation, knowledge of the outside world, or the right to a fair trial – forcing them to sit motionless for hours on end was one of the basic forms of mental debilitation. For “reeducation” purposes people like Paul and Richter were subjected to daylong interrogation sessions, a method of simultaneous information gathering and “decomposition of the soul” not unlike Conrad’s manipulative, double-speaking Councilor Mikulin from “Under Western Eyes.” The detached recounting of these terrors is penetrating – sporadically complemented by voiceover reading the prison memoirs of Jurgen Fuchs, “Decomposition” subtly but unforgettably documents the totalitarianism of the East German police state.
By returning to the scene of the crime, “Decomposition” recalls 2003’s “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine,” in which two survivors of the Cambodian genocide revisit the camp where they narrowly escaped death. The difference between the films is conceptual and strategic: in “S21” the survivors confront their former captors who must somehow explain their horrific practices, even if no explanation can ever be satisfactory; but in “Decomposition” only the victims inhabit the eerily empty Berlin-Hohenschonhausen, currently serving, like S21, as a memorial. Their tormentors noticeably absent (many still refuse to acknowledge their participation in the Stasi, although investigations into their ranks and activities have been ongoing since the fall of the Berlin Wall), Paul and Richter engage in no dramatic human-to-human encounters weighted with the horror of the past but instead act as scarred tour guides; the filmmakers’ camera often works as an independent surveyor struggling to impart the dehumanizing effects of a haunted environment, scanning chamber walls and doorways with meticulous pans and tracking shots.
“Decomposition”‘s approach is thus clinically architectural as compared to a more standard documentary like “S21,” but not a degree less human for that. Going over the vestiges of the cruelest and most extreme authoritarianism, Toussaint and Iannetta create a vivid, harrowing testimony from a bare minimum of visual evidence. When “Decomposition” ends with shots of the trees and sky withheld from Paul and Richter, and those like them, for so many years, it painfully depicts an intensely muted celebration of freedom after a seeming lifetime of confinement.