Hitchcock’s 1966 Cold War thriller Torn Curtain features character actress Lila Kedrova in a cameo role as “Countess Kuchiska” an older impoverished Polish aristocrat who helps a US scientist and his fiancée to escape East Berlin. She recognizes the two fugitives by chance on a crowded street and they go to a coffee shop to negotiate an exchange: “You are safe with me, I am not communistical. Now I am making you a proposition. Will you help me please, I need American sponsor.” –Kedrova plays the role of a small-time hustler to the hilt as she tearfully blackmails them, offering that she will get them to their escape point in return for their sponsorship for US citizenship.

This meeting catches much of the desperation and the powerless predicament of the ordinary citizen living under totalitarian rule, and also has some resonance with the film series by Gabriele Stellbaum “I Bruise Easily,” where a woman attempts to negotiate her way around the all-seeing eye of the autocratic state.

Gabriele Stellbaum’s latest work in this series is titled “Honest Lies.” Her film begins with the sound of skidding brakes as a mother and daughter seated in a small car catapult to a halt. They are pulled up short. The film then cuts between a Renault-4 driving endlessly round a deserted German car park at night and the same woman who elegantly dressed in a headscarf and raincoat takes a ferry across a lake and walks into a forest in bright sunlight to furtively collect and drop packages of papers from an empty wire garbage basket (–“a hateful orange-brown folder” as the narrator spits).
Unsettling neo-noir incidental music and a clipped female off-screen voice-over add to the film’s claustrophobic yet compelling circularity. The small car winds endlessly through the deserted garage as if searching for the right point of meeting amid its anonymous floors, and then finally at the end the screen finally fades slowly to black as the corridors continue.

Similar to a labyrinth, Stellbaum’s filmic structure leads us down into a winding Dantean underworld of thoughts, memories, fears, and imaginations of what is yet to come. The narrative is driven by the cryptic, half-revealed mutterings of a mother ruminating over actions she has taken that may soon be regretted. As viewers we are brought along for the ride but kept in a state of suspense, awaiting clues and secrets to be revealed.

This much is clear: The mother is betraying secrets to protect herself and her daughter. We are unclear if she is betraying the government or her neighbors or both. She began with a small assignment. The “limits of that responsibility” have since been “expanded.” The lies have become larger. She is now caught between moral imperative and personal expedience.
As the narrator states, “I do have a certain instinct for self-preservation.” -This line is perhaps the key to the whole film. There is both pride and self-excuse in this statement. The totalitarian state deliberately divides to conquer, coercing the populace into a state of retreat, so intent on survival that civic responsibility can be dismissed with the excuse of self-preservation.
In the East German state during Communism, according to reports, one in every six delighted in or benefited from or was blackmailed into informing the Stasi on the lives of their co-workers and neighbors. This situation creates a society spinning on lies, the fear of truths revealed, and the continual dread of betrayal.

In the post-Wall era, the binary model has changed, there is no longer the old school juxtaposition of the individual and the totalitarian state, this model has practically become retro chic itself. Looking back, this was a cleanly cut world of good vs. evil, and now it is gone for good. We have lost the luxury of the easily identifiable adversary. We find ourselves caught as participants in an all-encompassing system, which is neither good nor bad: the invisible hand reigning into our lives is just utterly amoral. And similar to Stellbaum’s vast, empty concrete structure, there’s many turns and many pointers and directions, but – as it seems – no exit. We’re victims, perpetrators and also collaborators in a bureaucratic global system that has now run out of control.
Unlike Stellbaum’s earlier solo works in this series, this new film now features three actors, the mother, her teenage daughter and a middle-aged anonymous-looking man (perhaps an undercover government official) who briefly joins the mother in her car in the night-time car park to hand her a folder. The man’s manner is brusque, matter-of-fact, adamant that either she will take the folder or there will be repercussions.

Totalitarianism’s game of control and surveillance relied of the complicity and understanding of both perpetrator and victim. Michel Foucault writes about the changes in societal policing brought by Bentham’s 1791 prison model, the Panopticon, “the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment.” Foucault argues that everyone is aware of being watched, they are also self-policing, reducing the state’s workload. This decentralized self- policing introduces suspicion of whole categories of society. Foucault notes “This architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they themselves are the bearers.” In the new totalitarian state, the inculcation of fear relies on circularity, there is no escape, it is a closed system. Stellbaum’s small Renault is lost in the hi- resolution stop-motion digi-architecture of the huge desolate concrete car park at night. The normal daytime users have gone home and the night-time dissident is spotlit in the neon lighting, trapped and hyper-aware of the one-way system in which she is ensnared, now endlessly implicated by the official and his hateful incriminating bureaucratic folders.

In other sequences inside the car, the woman’s only companion is her teenage daughter who sits mutely in the backseat protected and under maternal control. The daughter is smiling, amused and uncomprehending as to why they are driving endlessly around a car park at night. She must never know her mother’s secret or the danger they are in. She too is hostage –to her mother’s fears.
The inclusion of a mother-daughter relationship in this film adds another thread to Stellbaum’s narrative beyond Stasi-era East Germany. The narrator states cryptically at one point, “Subversion of society is possible only for a mere few – preferably those without children or anyone to love… In my architecture of lies it will have been better to avoid close friendships or contacts.” Stellbaum here alludes to a different state of exception: the terrorist. Spies live undercover and their families generally remain anonymous, but the known terrorist’s family members are vulnerable to attack. In a war of no-negotiation, the collateral damage can be extensive. Post-war German history attests to the vulnerability of the children of the terrorist Baader-Meinhof members when the group became fugitives. The dissident mother must always struggle between personal and ideological concerns.
In such a setting, like Hitchcock’s Countess Kuchiska, Stellbaum’s protagonist catches the viewer in a heart-rending bind. In a nighttime car park, a woman driver is caught without any means of escape. She needs help, her hands may be dirty from the things she has done, and the stories she is telling us are puzzling and incomplete. Are they truth or lies? The viewer becomes caught up in her escalating dilemma, and starts spinning round with her on a roundabout with no exit.

by Rupert Goldsworthy