During the Cold War, Alexander Radler was allegedly one of many East Germans spying for the Stasi, the communist state's feared secret police. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Stasi destroyed its files, many of those spies slipped away into the obscurity of new lives. Radler became a priest and moved to Sweden.
Now, almost a quarter century later, sophisticated new computer technology is allowing Germans to reconstruct the destroyed Stasi archives – and to reveal the former spies still among them. "Being Radler," a forthcoming short film, tells the story of Radler's three lives: first as a spy, then as a priest hiding his past and, now, as a man exposed to the world.
The documentary "attempts to look at East Germany from inside the world of the Stasi informant," Peter Savodnik, who produced the film and helped report it, told me. "Radler is a fascinating character, and we did not want to treat him simply as a villain but as a complicated, highly intelligent and three-dimensional character inside a very warped world."
Perhaps more than that, the film is a glimpse into Germany's still-ongoing struggle to understand and confront its difficult post-war history. "Many prominent people in Germany ... are suspected of having worked for the Stasi secretly," Savodnik explained, noting that even the head of a major political party, Gregor Gysi of the Left Party, has long fought against allegations that he informed for the Stasi. That air of suspicion and uncertainty is finally being cleared, bringing revelations to the surface and, in the process, forcing Germany to relive its four decades of division and, for East Germans, fear and suspicion.
"Thanks to this computer program, the truth is being pieced together, one document at a time," Savodnik said. "Over the next year or two, Germany is likely to witness several very high-profile scandals, as these files are reconstructed and the truth comes out."
This ongoing process could help to explain — and may well exacerbate — Germany's angry reaction to revelations of spying by America's National Security Agency. German citizens and politicians have expressed deep outrage, particularly over the revelation that the NSA had listened in on Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone. It's well established that this is, in part, an expression of Germany's post-Stasi sensitivity to electronic surveillance. What this film drives home is the degree to which that past is not really past for Germany, but remains as alive and controversial as Alexander Radler.
The film is produced by Stateless Media, which describes its mission as "post-print storytelling." This is its third short documentary, each about 10 to 15 minutes of provocative but thoughtful and extremely polished video reporting. The first, "The Brothers Sheikh," was produced for the New Yorker's Web site and told the story of a Sri Lankan man, living in England, trying to understand the mysterious murder of his brother in Colombo. The second, "Chutzpah," followed Anthony Weiner's ill-fated run for mayor of New York City and attracted favorable attention in U.S. political circles.
The company has another 10 short films in the works, Savodnik says. "Being Radler" will be released in full mid-December.