When the German Democratic Republic (GDR) ceased to exist a quarter of a century ago, one of the many stashes of paperwork uncovered were the files of writer Sascha Anderson. Mr. Anderson, born in 1953, was once a much admired star of the art scene in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. He had also provided his Ministry of State Security (Stasi) handlers with extensive reports on his singing, pottery-making, painting and poet friends for years, even after he had moved to West Berlin.
Not surprisingly, his story caused a commotion. His betrayal, which he denied, then idealized as a postmodern game in an autobiographical novel, cast a shadow over the East Berlin underground. Was it possible that these artists and writers who, in the last years of the GDR, had spent much of their time painting teacups and reading hermetic poetry in their live-in kitchens, were so tame and apolitical that a poetry-writing employee of the Stasi easily managed to become one of their leaders?
The Anderson case tarnished the myth of the Prenzlauer Berg artists, whose historic legacy has all but disappeared today.
Was it even conceivable that the last German revolution would never have taken place if it had been entirely up to East Germany’s quiet kitchen artists? The Anderson case tarnished the myth of the Prenzlauer Berg artists, whose historic legacy has all but disappeared today.
Within a very short period of time, the GDR has come to rival ancient Rome as a place that has, since its demise, been turned into a museum. Films, novels, museums, cookbooks and books about classic cars are dedicated to the bad old days of the German Democratic Republic. Lutz Seiler’s wonderful novel Kruso, which takes place on the Baltic Sea island of Hiddensee, is on the shortlist for the German Book Prize, to be awarded at the Frankfurt Book Fair this week. If Seiler wins, it will be the second time the award has gone to an important novel about the former East Germany, the first being Uwe Tellkamp’s Der Turm (The Tower).
The documentary film “Anderson,” by Annekatrin Hendel, deliberately tries to fit into the current movement to document and preserve the relationship between the former East and West Germany. It shows the former Stasi artist as a 60-year-old family man living in the affluent western state of Hesse, with a car and a home of his own, and it allows the friends he betrayed to comment extensively on the story.
They include musician Ekkehard Maaß, ceramic artist Wilfriede Maaß, poet Bert Papenfuß, Ingrid and Dietrich Bahß, both photographers, cameramen Lars Barthel and Thomas Plenert, journalist Holger Kulick and the current director of the agency that manages the Stasi archives, Roland Jahn.
In the sets of an expansive studio, between a few partitions, the film recreates the idyllic East Berlin kitchen of Ekkehard Maaß, down to such details as stuffed bunnies and painted teacups. In the midst of it all is the elderly former informer, wearing a Russian cap over his close-cropped hair. It’s a nice idea: the idyllic GDR scene as a cardboard set, the protagonist standing in the cinematic museum of his life.
Anderson’s former friends still want to know why on earth he betrayed them. “Other societies impose the death penalty on people who betray their friends,” said Mr. Maaß, who had housed and fed Mr. Anderson in the 1980s and driven him everywhere. The poet, whose “erotic body language” the now gray-haired women of the artistic and literary community still rave about today (“the way he wore his jeans is unforgettable”), even slept with his wife, Wilfriede Maaß, in the apartment they shared on Schönfließerstraße.
“Other societies impose the death penalty on people who betray their friends.”
“We were exploitable to the point of complete exposure,” said Mr. Maaß, as he describes the opacity of the situation at the time, in which eroticism, poetry, lies, singing ballads, conspiracy, life in a live-in kitchen and the pursuit of handicrafts formed an inextricable whole.
Even the film is unable to explain Mr. Anderson’s betrayal. He said he aimed to do everything in his power so that “the brutish experiences of German fascism would not be repeated.” It’s enough to make you rub your eyes in disbelief. Betraying your friends as an anti-fascist act?
Mr. Anderson concedes that all this “went amiss,” and that what he did had “the potential to hurt people.” But, he added, he accepted his Stasi handlers as the “representatives of a system” to which he had maintained a “concept of loyalty.”
“Violating that loyalty would have destroyed me.”
Mr. Anderson once before presented me with this way of seeing the past – of the Stasi as a safe haven, as a “family” that provided a sense of security for a writer whose life is out of balance – during an interview with Die Zeit in his West Berlin apartment in January 1992. During the course of that five-hour conversation, in which he resolutely denied any consensual collaboration with the Stasi, he said that his aim had always been to “lose my identity in a productive way.” The film reveals that when Mr. Anderson was dismissed from the service in 1990, he believed his handlers’ assurances that all records had been destroyed.
Today, his friends still view him as “a mystery,” and they still consider him to be a “player,” someone who had deeply incorporated the “lie” into his own operating system. But is a game a bad thing merely because you were on the losing end of it?
Ms. Hendel’s film steers clear of questions like these. It prefers to show what we can also read in Lutz Seiler’s suggestive island novel: how, towards the end, the sensitive inmates of the GDR lost their sense of reality.
This article first appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: Iris.firstname.lastname@example.org