Melancholy is the operative feeling in Amie Siegel’s DDR/DRR, a visually expansive and formally strenuous cine-assemblage that traces the peak and psychic aftermath of East Germany’s clandestine surveillance program. An unremittingly patient camera—its soporific tracking shots of embalmed Stasi offices and interrogation rooms, its reverence for abandoned concrete towers and hallways—becomes in Siegel’s hands a chronicler of ghosts, a mournful magic lantern that meticulously transforms empty spaces into images thickened with loss and memory.
But the images in DDR/DRR—its title a reference to the German Democratic Republic, home to 16 million during its 40-year run prior to reunification in 1990—hardly all belong to Siegel’s camera. Accompanying and often appearing in juxtaposition with the film’s own stark tableaus and interview sequences, hazy surveillance videos provide a compacted visual sampling of East German espionage and interrogation techniques, recorded almost entirely with cleverly disguised micro-cameras, concealed in briefcases, bedroom walls, and private residences, a low-fidelity, State-sanctioned picture show that chronicles East Berlin’s secret history in under 230 lines of resolution.
The cumulative effects of these juxtapositions are incantatory and exhausted, but necessarily so; Siegel’s are images that struggle in the present tense, that refuse to shake off the past or exist on their own terms, in their own time, without the mediation of history. Like Robert Smithson’s tour of the monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, DDR/DDR is the work of an observer overwhelmed by colliding, sometimes conflicting temporal textures and rhythms. A film stocked to the brim with ruins in reverse, it puts its images on the receiving end of multiple voices—former Stasi operatives, East German psychoanalysts, a subculture of Native American impersonators, and the filmmaker herself—in ways that make Siegel’s otherwise didactic on- and off-screen theoretical pronouncements (“Stasi as psychoanalyst,” “filmmaker as psychoanalyst,” “filmmaker as Stasi”) run the risk of unimaginative severity.
In its subordination to marginalized histories, political or otherwise, and in its exacting stylistic program, Siegel’s film perhaps has its most immediate predecessor in John Gianvito’s Profit motive and the whispering wind. Unlike Gianvito, however, Siegel is less interested in presenting history as an extractable series of signs or clues that may or may not teach us how to achieve a better, more imaginative future. Instead, DDR/DDR suggests a cacophonous, if not daunting and cyclical historical worldview, one that finds its most striking visual metaphor in Siegel’s image of two exposed elevator shafts, its passengers being transported in opposite directions, each car appearing and disappearing between floors, a series of frames on a moving film strip. It’s during these moments that Siegel’s film feels most successful, when it insists on history’s ability to enter into the present in the form of evolving, moving sounds and images—in the form of cinema.