The chats of others

Quico says: A few nights ago I was blown away by Florian von Donnersmarck’s brilliant 2006 film, The Lives of Others. In a quiet, methodical way, the film profiles the East German secret police’s system of internal espionage and repression, yielding a chilling, sobering portrait of the mechanics of totalitarian control.

It’s the kind of movie you can’t get out of your head for days after you’ve seen it; my new favorite film.

As a thriller, it’s damn good entertainment, but it’s the detailed observation of the nuts and bolts of totalitarianism, and the portrayal of the atmosphere of sheer, throat-clenching Fear it inspires, that set the film apart.

The very first sequence in the film will give you a sense of what I mean:

At first, what we witness is an act of injustice: a coercive interrogation premised not on physical blows but on sleep deprivation. The scene is brutal. As an insomniac myself, I’m especially tuned in to how much not being able to sleep messes with your mind.

Though it’s certainly well executed, the Nasty Interrogation Scene is nothing new. Hollywood has inured us to this sort of thing. If they’d thrown in a Good Cop, you’d call it boilerplate.

But then, we get something we’re not used to seeing. Just after the two minute mark, von Donnersmarck pulls back. Suddenly we’re in a classroom, and we see that this interrogation has been, as it were, recorded for training purposes. It’s being used to teach new Stasi recruits how to conduct their own interrogations.

Suddenly, we’re made aware that we were not witnessing an individual injustice. What we’re seeing is a system at work. We realize the Stasi was about more than just interrogating suspects and recruiting informants. It was about creating and preserving the institutional capabilities you need to sustain a system of pervasive surveillance. In this, the film is unique. Time and again, von Donnersmarck invites us to witness not just the Stasi’s operations but also the institutional infrastructure that supports them.

What strikes you about the film is how methodical, how detail oriented how…well, how German they were about it. The Stasi we’re shown doles out its brutality in scientifically calculated portions. To this end, it had its own research arm, carrying out the kind of sober, detail-oriented investigation it takes to really beef up an organization’s capabilities.

The point is brought home in a chilling scene, where an elated Stasi middle-manager hands his colleague a thick stack of papers and says:

I have to show you something: “Prison Conditions for Subversive Artists: Based on Character Profile”. Pretty scientific, eh? And look at this: “Dissertation Supervisor, A. Grubitz”. That’s great, isn’t it? I only gave him a B. They shouldn’t think getting a doctorate with me is easy. But his is first-class.

Did you know that there are just five types of artists? Your guy, Dreyman, is a Type 4, a “hysterical anthropocentrist.” Can’t bear being alone, always talking, needing friends. That type should never be brought to trial. They thrive on that. Temporary detention is the best way to deal with them. Complete isolation and no set release date. No human contact the whole time, not even with the guards. Good treatment, no harassment, no abuse, no scandals, nothing they could write about later. After 10 months, we release. Suddenly, that guy won’t cause us any more trouble.

Know what the best part is? Most type 4s we’ve processed in this way never write anything again. Or paint anything, or whatever artists do. And that without any use of force. Just like that. Kind of like a present.

In scenes like this one, Von Donnersmarck shows the Stasi as, first and foremost, a rational bureaucracy, complete with its own standard operating procedures, training programs, career-advancement paths, petty office politics and institutionalized absurdities. The violence it perpetrated was never the random brutality of a goon, it was always strategically calculated, meted out with the fastidiousness of an accountant.

Its task was to interpose state power between one person and the next, to lodge the state into the most intimate crevices of personal life as a way of ensuring that nothing East Germans said or did would ever catch the state unaware. To these ends, it had almost unlimited resources, and was constrained by no institutional counterweight.

The result is something Hannah Arendt considered the cornerstone of totalitarianism: the criminalization of intimacy. In a society where there is no privacy, where a careless bit of pillow-talk can land you in jail, where the state can do with you pretty much what it wants, in such a society intimacy becomes an unattainable luxury.

To have a friend, to confide in someone, is to place not just yourself but also your friend in danger. Elementary caution dictates that people will keep their own thoughts hidden. Even more corrosive, it compels them to go to great lengths to avoid knowing their friends’ and neighbors’ intimacies as well. When intimacy is complicity, the only way to protect yourself is to isolate yourself.

The man being interrogated in the clip above, notice, hasn’t actually done anything wrong. His mistake was merely to know. In this case, to know the name of the man helping his friend escape to the West. If he became an enemy of the state – and make no mistake about it, he now is an enemy of the state – it’s because he allowed himself to be confided in.

It’s this criminalization of intimacy that makes totalitarianism unique, that sets it apart from “normal” dictatorship. A totalitarian state is one that atomizes individuals, isolates them by raising the cost of intimacy to the point where any personal bond stronger than one’s bond to the state becomes dangerous, a luxury normal people are unwise to indulge.

Once implemented, such a system hardly needs to call attention to itself. It exists. Everybody knows it exists, and it is pervasive. In East Germany, “Stasi” became almost taboo, a word one whispered, as though merely saying it out loud was dangerous in itself. Certainly, the Stasi had no reason to bluster, to make a big show of its power. Its bite was infinitely worse than its barely perceptible bark.

It was with these kinds of thoughts buzzing around my head that I sat down behind my computer, clicked on Noticias24, and found this startling exemplar of our own, criollized internal spying operation.

(I can’t seem to embed the clip – but it shows Alberto Nolia on VTV exposing a wire-tapped conversation between Teodoro Petkoff and Luis Miquilena, where they discuss how they might pressure politicos in Barinas State to agree a unity candidacy.)

Fresh from watching The Lives of Others, stumbling upon this clip left me at a loss for words.

My first impression, as I listened to it with my Venezuelan-pundit hat on, is that there’s a huge, jarring disconnect between the fairly innocuous stuff on the wire-taps and the utterly unhinged rambling Nolia sandwiches the clips with. The formula seems to be something like:

  1. Nolia says he’s about to show us something unimaginably shocking, something that lays bare the fascist opposition at its most conspiratorially horrid.
  2. We hear a wire-tap clip of Luis Miquilena and/or Teodoro Petkoff having a perfectly vanilla political conversation in private that more or less reflects what they say in public all the time.
  3. Nolia comes back on and asks if we can friggin’ believe how horrible these people are.

But perhaps we should back up a bit. The truly bizarre thing about these recordings isn’t so much what’s on them, it’s that they’re on TV! State TV, to be precise.

And that, right there, tells you as much as you need to know about the real different between real Stasi-style totalitarianism and the banana republicized, made-for-TV knock-off we get nightly on channel 8.

I have to wonder what your average Stasi interrogator would make of Los Papeles de Mandinga. My guess is, they wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails from it.

Chavismo doesn’t seem to get it: you don’t need VTV and a wire tap to find out that, these days, Teodoro Petkoff’s is all about knocking opposition heads together to ensure we get unity candidates in November. You can just go down to your local kiosk, buy a copy of Tal Cual, and read it for yourself. The wire tap tells us nothing we don’t already know.

But then, what’s the point really? The Stasi spied on people to make sure they followed the party line in private as well as in public; if they didn’t, they got thrown in jail. Chavismo, on the other hand, spies on people, finds out that what they say in private matches what they say in public, and then sensationalizes the non-findings by throwing them up on VTV.

What are they looking to accomplish with this? Where are the consequences to these self-described blatant acts of destabilization?

The real gap here is, I think, about professional ethics. Stasi agents took their jobs seriously. The organization carefully built up the institutional expertise needed to monitor all of East German society quietly, invisibly, but omnipresently. It had a vision, a mission and a goal.

Contrast that with the chavista Disip, which is content to put taps on a handful of high profile politicos’ phones and sporadically throws some of the stuff they record on the air, seeking to intimidate them but succeeding only in humiliating themselves.

As we watch Nolia rant, it’s easy to grasp that chavismo doesn’t take its own domestic spying operation terribly seriously. It’s impossible to imagine somebody in the Disip trying to advance his career prospects by writing a thick, scholarly dissertation. In fact, in Venezuela you’re more likely to hear the word “Disip” as the punchline to a joke than as a terrified whisper.

It’s history repeating itself as farce.

Instead of Fear – capital F fear – all the Chávez government’s spying really provokes is a kind of bemused revulsion. Forced to listen in on the private conversations of politicians doing their jobs, we are only disgusted at the rampant mediocrity of the people who govern us.

Nolia’s obscene flaunting of the impunity that chavistas enjoy tells us much more about him and the regime than it does about Petkoff, Miquilena or the many more whose conversations have recently been aired publicly. It shows a regime that is dimly aware that surveillance can be used as a mechanism of control, but hasn’t the slightest clue exactly how to pull off the trick because it disdains the professional ethos that it would take to achieve this, or any other, substantial task.

It’s something that bears keeping in mind before we go around blithely describing chavismo as “totalitarian” – eso es una falta de respeto…¡con los totalitarios!

For all its rank disregard for the rule of law, chavismo doesn’t have the wherewithall to criminalize intimacy in Venezuela. In revealing innocuous private conversations with no strategic objective in sight, all it does is reinforce the sense that the revolution abhors anything that even resembles rigor and discipline.

The Bolivarian Republic of East Germany we are not.