One night this week at the Distil, a popular cabaret theater specializing in daring political satire about life in communist East Germany, a comedian unveiled a machine that is supposed to press all the juice out of official speeches.
Sheets of paper that are run through the machine emerge as tiny compacted squares on which are written a single sentence: "Socialism is victorious."
And so it went for several hours as Distil's comedians lampooned party officials, parodied the foibles of the German Democratic Republic and even cracked a few jokes about the wall that holds in the 17 million citizens of East Germany.
But one subject went unmentioned.
There were no jokes about Poland and no hint of the political tensions that have been stirred up here by the events in this country's eastern neighbor.
It was as if the Polish situation were simply too serious, and too immediate, to be the subject of satire even for the amusement of a small audience of cabaret-goers.
Such omissions are no accident in a society that carefully controls all political expression. And to those skilled at reading the country's political signs it was evidence of the gravity with which East German authorities view the unfolding crisis in Poland.
In the West, East Germany is sometimes portrayed as a harsh socialist prison ruled by a regime that is slavishly loyal to the Soviet Union and anxious to be unleashed militarily to put down the unrest beyond the Oder River.
But inside East Germany a far more complex picture of the German Democratic Republic's interests in the present crisis emerges.
In many respects, East Germany has more to lose from the continued unrest than the Soviet Union or any of its allies. Yet the party leadership as well as the people both appear to dread the prospect of military intervention, fearing that it could spell the end of the expanded contacts with the West that have greatly improved life here since the 1970s.
It is difficult to find anyone here who agrees with U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's view that the detente of the last decade reinforced the Soviet "prison wall."
Under the umbrella of detente, which East Germans now see threatened by events in Poland, the two Germanys signed agreements that eased tensions between them, increased personal contacts and improved economic conditions this side of the wall.
In 1978 about 7.7 million West Germans visited relatives in East Germany compared with a mere trickle in 1970. The number of East Germans traveling to the West rose from hardly any in 1970 to about 40,000 a year, and visits of West Berliners to East Berlin became almost routine.
Meanwhile, economic ties between the two Germanys strengthened. In 1978 about $1.1 billion worth of Western cash went to East Germany in the form of grants from the West German government, or as gifts and money spent in East Germany by visitors and relatives.
As a direct consequence of detente, Washington and Bonn ended their postwar policy of isolating East Germany, East and West Germany exchanged diplomatic representatives, and East Germany joined the United Nations and was recognized by 120 countries, including the United States.
East Germans already have paid a price for the crisis in Poland. Contacts with West Germany have been reduced because of actions taken by the government here last October, and there were shortages this winter of hard coal, sulfur and other raw materials normally obtained from Poland.
As the uncertainty continues, however, concern mounts that broader gains made in the 1970s also could become a casualty of Poland's strife -- especially if the Army has to join a military interevention in Poland, as it did in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
East German officials acknowledge that the crisis has enhanced their country's prestige within the Soviet Bloc. Compared with the disarray in Poland, East Germany's political, economic and social stability stands out sharply. After being overshadowed for years by Poland and Czechoslovakia, East Germany seems finally to have arrived as the Soviet Union's most important East European ally.
Industrial output rose last year by an impressive 4.7 percent and exports to the West increased by 27 percent. Increasingly, East Germany is the Soviet Bloc's economic showcase.
The downtown area in and around the famous Unter den Linden boulevard, which once was drab and empty even in the middle of a business day, now bustles with crowds. New hotels have gone up and shops seemed better provisioned than they were only half a dozen years ago.
There is no sign of the restiveness in the country's labor force that gave rise to the Solidarity independent trade union organization in Poland, and workers acknowledge that they are better off than their counterparts in Poland or in Czechoslovakia.
Far from spreading to East Germany's factories, Solidarity's strikes and political activities seem instead to have stirred up dormant German contempt for Polish work habits. Old jokes about "the Polish mess" have been making the rounds in East Berlin. Yet few Germans, in or out of the party, are gloating over the Polish situation.
For one thing, not all East German disapprove of the activities of Polish workers. As a local truck driver put it, "It's true that the Poles are unloved here and vice versa. But you have to admire their courage. We do not have that kind of courage."
If Solidarity survives as an independent voice of Polish workers, its influence eventually would be felt in East Germany as well, Western diplomats say.
The current situation is full of potential perils for the East German leadership.
East Germany's relative prosperity has been built on a social and economic model that is similar to that of the Soviet Union. What remains to be seen, however, is whether this model can succeed if it is cut off from Moscow by a Poland that is experimenting with a new system based on trade union rights and democratic principles.
"If it came down to a choice between intervening in Poland and standing idly by while capitalism was restored . . . then I would unhesitatingly say, 'intervene,'" an East German party member said.
However, he acknowledged that the choice is never likely to be that simple. "Countries do have a right to develop socialism in their own way -- Karl Marx said so -- but when does this become the first step in the restoration of capitalism? It is not an easy thing to know."