The Decomposition of the Soul

The Decomposition of the Soul

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The only pleasure of The Lives of Others is how Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s obscenely lauded film has allowed for the U.S. release of The Decomposition of the Soul, the first essential documentary of the new year. This spellbinding account of life inside a former GDR prison connects to the existential themes of Night and Fog and A Man Escaped. Directors Nina Toussaint and Massimo Iannetta study the cavernous interiors of Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, where East Germany’s Stasi police grilled inmates between 1951 and 1989, with a camera whose roving syntax is complemented by the detached narration of a former prisoner’s poetic account of his stay there. No hallway in this facility escapes Toussaint and Ianetta’s kino-eye, which scans every floral pattern, padded cell, window, and hollowed-out piece of furniture (where bugs were hidden in order to eavesdrop on prisoner conversations) with intense scrutiny. This meticulous aesthetic conditions us to prison life, empathetically placing us in the shoes of inmates who were subjected to punishing mental torture by their captors; the film’s low-contrast shooting is such that some rooms in the prison suggest doll-house spaces, a warped view that connects to accounts of inmates complaining about their collapsing spatial orientations. Only two former prisoners appear on camera, Hartmut Richter and Sigrid Paul, who speak less of the reasons for their capture than the mental breakdown and humiliation they endured during their stay, and like the deceased Jürgen Fuchs’s elegiac text, their recollections speak for everyone interned at Berlin-Hohenschönhausen. Toussaint and Ianetta’s camera can be desperate, as in the way it peers at Sigrid inside her former cell from the imagined point of view of a snooping Stasi officer, but unlike The Lives of Others, its study of social conditioning never veers toward cuteness.

Runtime
81 min
Rating
NR
Year
2002
Director
Massimo Iannetta, Nina Toussaint
Screenwriter
Massimo Iannetta, Nina Toussaint
Cast
Hartmut Richter, Sigrid Paul