09/12/2013 04:37 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2013


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 folks 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.

The 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, D.C., 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 accidentally 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?

To read the rest of the interview, please click here.