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Culture

Opinions Split Over Dissident Who Fell for the Enemy

A German TV movie about a political prisoner who falls in love with her interrogating officer in the early 1980s drew angry accusations ahead of its screening that it humanized the dreaded East German secret police.

Uwe Karlstedt and Regina Kaiser

The real-life couple

The plot of "12 heisst: Ich liebe dich" ("12 Means I Love You") certainly defies belief.

But in fact, the love affair between Regina Kaiser and Uwe Karlstedt is a true story -- were it not, it is unlikely any screenwriter would have dared make it up. The couple met and fell in love in 1981 when Kaiser was imprisoned by the East German communist regime for cultivating contacts in West Germany and Karlstedt was the ambitious young officer placed in charge of her interrogation.

The attraction remained unspoken, and Kaiser was sentenced to jail for three years. But 16 years later, she tracked down her one-time tormentor to tell him how she felt. They married and, in 2003, published an account of their love story, which was adapted for the small screen and aired Wednesday, April 16.

Controversial theme

The actor Devid Striesow on the set of the film

Actor Devid Striesow played Uwe

Whether her feelings can be attributed to Stockholm Syndrome -- the emotional attachment to their captor sometimes experienced by hostages -- or simply prove that there's no knowing when love can strike, Kaiser's response has apparently been hard for German audiences to understand.

Ahead of its screening, the film drew comparisons to Liliana Cavani's controversial 1974 movie "The Night Porter," which starred Charlotte Rampling as a concentration camp survivor who renews a relationship 13 years after the end of World War II with the former Nazi SS officer who once persecuted her.

Both films were accused of sensationalism.

"As nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering," said critic Roger Ebert about "The Night Porter."

Diminishing suffering

Hubertus Knabe

Hubertus Knabe

This week, historian Hubertus Knabe, the director of the memorial center at the former Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen prison used by the Stasi, accused ARD channel of commissioning a voyeuristic film that diminishes the suffering of the 200,000 people who were thrown in jail by East Germany's secret police, the Stasi.

"This film gives millions of people a skewed image of what it was like to be detained by the Stasi," he said in a statement. "The time the Stasi victims spent in jail were the worst moments of their lives. None of them felt any love for the secret police members who interrogated them.

"This extremely complex subject is not appropriate material for primetime television," he said, adding that the movie conveyed the impression that being remanded on custody in the GDR was like "visiting a dating agency."

Fair opinion

Meanwhile, Der Spiegel newsmagazine reported that eight victims' associations had appealed in vain over the last year to the television station that produced the film, MDR, to halt production.

"Everybody is complaining about a film they have not seen," director Connie Walther told the magazine. "How could they have formed a fair opinion?"

Ethical message aside, reviews on Thursday were largely positive. The film was broadly praised for its unflinching depiction of Stasi cruelty and skilled acting, while the daily Tageszeitung said it represented a new stage in Germans' collective coming to terms with the country's communist-era division.

"After reunification, the way of looking at the Stasi was initially hysterical," the paper said. "But the 2007 Oscar-winner 'The Lives of Others' marked a watershed as it dared to give the Stasi a human face."

Mendacious movies

Actor Ulrich Mühe in the Lives of Others

The main character in "The Lives of Others" was dismissed by many as unrealistic

But to others, humanizing the Stasi was precisely what made Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's critically acclaimed thriller mendacious and misleading.

As the movie scooped every prize going, former civil rights activist Werner Schulz wrote in the online version of Die Welt newspaper that it failed to reflect the harsh reality of life in communist East Germany.

"A Stasi officer prepared to risk his life to save a dissident never existed," he said, although he conceded that the film accurately captured the drab atmosphere of life behind the Iron Curtain.

Comedies such as the smash hit "Goodbye Lenin" and "NVA" about the East German army, he pointed out, suggested that "the most serious problem in the GDR was that you might die of laughter."

However, Claudia Michelsen, who played the lead in "12 Means I Love You," herself grew up in communist East Germany and said the film made her rethink a lot of stereotypes.

"I always had this image that this is a Stasi spy and he is an idiot and this is a victim and deserves pity," she said. "But everybody has his own story and the man in this one simply did not know any better.

"I think we should be more sensitive about individual destinies," she added. "Nothing is ever black and white -- that's just too easy and cozy."

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