The Secret Hand is a documentary about STASI, one of the most pervasive secret service in history, and how it controlled, infiltrated, repressed and manipulated artists in the former GDR.
When we talk about “the hand of the artist”, we refer to his personal touch, his poetry.
In the DDR, there was often another hand - a secret one - added to the one of the artists, forcing them to operate in directions that were approved by the power. The hand of STASI, the pervasive and feared secret service of the DDR, infiltrated, manipulated, spied and repressed hundreds thousands of people and, among them, many artists.
After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, former East German citizens obtained the right to read their STASI files. Reading these files, many of them learned that the story of their life was a script written and directed by STASI.
This happened also to Jörg Metzner, co-founder of the theatre group “The Moles”. The group disbanded after only 3 years of activity but when Jörg read his file, he found out that the disbanding of the group was the result of a secret operation. By creating internal conflicts and sabotaging their activities, STASI had pulled down the enthusiasm of the components, resulting in the group to breakdown. Furthermore, Jörg found out that two components of the theatre group - one of his best friends and his girlfriend at the time - were STASI informants and that both had spied on him.
The film tells about these advanced and sophisticated forms of censorship in the attempt to discover how the censor thougt and acted behind the curtains by analysing the secret files he produced.
The purpose of this work: Censorship as an always topical issue
In China, authors or artists whose works have been censored or banned say: I have been harmonized. As is well known, art thrives on dissent and critical reflection on sociopolitical and existential conditions. Power wishes no dissent, but harmony and conformity. The relationship between political power and artistic freedom is an indicator of the democratic quality of a social order. Therefore, the issue of censorship and restrictions of artistic freedom is always a topical one.
All the more in our time, shaped on the one hand by the legitimacy crisis of western democracies, on the other hand by the rise of China as a world power. The increasing international influence of a gigantic empire that merges unbridled capitalism and communist oneparty dictatorship into a hybrid with totalitarian traits poses a serious challenge to western open societies, especially when it comes to freedom of artistic expression as a fundamental human right.
In contemporary advanced mass societies in a globalized world, governmental censorship take place in a differentiated manner in order not to discredit the reputation and legitimacy of authoritarian political regimes. Strategies and methods of political interference to control cultural and artistic production can be as creative, sophisticated and flexible as art itself can be.
The Background: Repression and disciplining arts in former GDR
In this context, the experience of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) during the Cold War period is very instructive. The East German communist regime kept a population of around 17 million inhabitants under complete and permanent surveillance for 40 years. Social organization, propaganda and indoctrination forced people to integrate into collectivist order and educated masses to conformity to life norms and ideological doctrine. The system regarded individual selfdetermination, alternative life plans and autonomous action and thinking as damaging, hostile, anti-socialist attitudes and behavior.
There was no official censorship in the GDR but the communist party established a framework of systematic conditioning in order to exercise control over all forms of literature, arts, culture and public communication. Many artists and authors tried to avoid conflicts from the outset, creating works that fit into the guidelines set by the regime. This phenomenon was called the "shear in the head". For others the omnipresence of censorship was as a challenge and a stimulus to their creativity. They tried to avoid censorship with clever usage of satire, irony and metaphor to say the desired in a for the censor unrecognizable way.
The Ministry for State Security, commonly known as STASI was the main instrument of domestic repression to maintain the party rule. The tentacular secret police apparatus could count on a widespread network of tens of thousands of civilian informers active at every level of society. So called unofficial collaborators, acting out of political conviction or in return for favors or because they were put under pressure, provided reports on the behavior of people from their domestic or work environments. They frequently spied on closed friends and family members.
It was only after the suppression of the "Prague Spring" in summer 1968 that the GDR regime began to consider the fight against all manifestations of "politicalideological deviation" and combating "anti-state agitation" as central tasks in the cultural sector. In June 1969, a new special operative division (Main Department HA XX/7) was set up with responsibility for securing the areas of cultural production and mass media communication. This unit established a dense network of confidants and informants in all institutions and associations for artists and cultural workers, e.g. in the Academy of Arts, publishing houses, theaters, museums and galleries as well as club-houses, in order to track developments in all cultural and artistic activities.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the system sought to burnish the GDR's international reputation while fighting internal opposition by intensification of the STASI's efforts to punish dissident behaviors without imprisonment or court judgments. In 1976, special techniques were defined to break down, undermine and paralyze people, individuals and groups, in a form of "silent repression”. Artists critical of the government and youth subculture groups were among the main target groups of so called “disintegration measures”. The use of such methods is well documented due to STASI files made public after the collapse of the regime in 1989/90, with up to 10,000 individuals estimated to have become victims.
The Film “The secret Hand”
“The secret Hand” tells of the measures of control, repression, infiltration and manipulation that were initiated by the STASI to take action against artists and artist groups whose work was considered “anti-socialist”, it means incompatible with the ideological state doctrine or with the general state order. When one speaks of the “hand of the artist”, one means his character trait, his stylistic code and thus also his poetics. In the former GDR there was often another, secret, insidious hand that intervened right into the creative process, forcing artists to operate in directions pleasing to power or to cease their artistic activity altogether. The documentary tells about these subtle and sophisticated forms of censorship, how they were conceived, developed and implemented, and the effect they had on individuals and groups. The narration is based on the content of the no longer secret STASI files, which are preserved in Berlin in order to find out how the secret police censor thought and acted, following the documents he created.
The film presents a series of real-life stories that attest to all the major forms of conditioning, influencing, and covert pressure exerted by authority. This should stimulate reflection on the meaning of freedom of expression and artistic freedom as well as on the special relationship and interaction between art and power. The protagonists of the plot are not that much the individuals affected by such measures, but the sometimes paternalistic, sometimes disciplining, sometimes stupidly punishing and oppressive, sometimes perfidiously falsifying intervention of power, as well as the irrepressible vitality and human ability to circumvent the censorship and the oppressor deceive by exploiting the contradictions of the system and developing strategies and practices of authentic expression using every available space.
The voices of the characters themselves will guide us in the discovery of the story. We want to create a relationship of trust with them, set up the shooting in a discreet and delicate way, and so put them at ease to retrace those human experiences so touching and dramatic. In this storytelling we have an additional element: the dry, cold and merciless pages of the STASI files, in which the lives of the characters have been rewritten by the secret hand of Stasi officials. We will ask the protagonists to read them, to bring out through their own voices the contrast between a strictly operational language and the psychological consequences and emotional and biographical disintegration that produced those repressive measures.
The Secret Hand is under development. We are in contact with two more characters and we are working on developing their stories in order to enrich the content of the film. We are looking for co-production partners, sales agents and broadcasters so that we can finalize our financial plan.
The Film Commission Torino Piemonte has given its support to the development phase of this project.
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