Surveillance recordings to listen in on

"50 kilometres of files" by Rimini Protokoll - a walk-in radio drama that brings Stasi files to life in Berlin’s Mitte district, giving witnesses of those times a voice.

Von Tina Klopp

19.05.2011 / Zeit online

"It was right here", a voice in the headphones says. The place she’s talking about used to be a café, the Press Café. The listener involuntarily turns around and looks up at the building, now a steak restaurant with coloured letters and an indoor fountain. She was sitting up there with her husband, eating, the voice continues, facing a momentous decision: leave, get herself and their two year-old son to safety, or stay in the GDR? It would mean leaving her husband behind; he’d never be allowed to leave. "How would you have decided?" asks the anonymous woman’s voice in the headphones.
A walk-in theatre piece, an interactive radio play, or a documentary-fictive tour of the city? It’s not easy to explain what Rimini Protokoll’s ‘50 kilometres of files’ project is exactly.
At the starting point – a recreated "control centre" near the Television Tower – participants are given a smartphone, a map of the city on paper and headphones. Then they set out on self-chosen routes through Berlin’s Mitte district. Participants can see their position on the phone display’s interactive map and head for the red points marked on the map.
On Alexanderplatz they hear about demonstrations, outside the Office of the Federal Commissioner for Preserving the Records of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic on Karl-Liebknecht Strasse they listen to a Berlin man called Maeder as he takes a look into his file. And in front of the former SED Party Archive on the corner of Torstrasse and Prenzlauer Allee, a former employee talks about her work. She’s amused to note that there’s now a swimming pool on the roof where the party flag used to fly.
The mother of a top athlete remembers the double statue of Marx and Engels because they are the two historic figures who most influenced her life. The mother squirms audibly: yes, she and her daughter were spied on, there were "a few swine", and her daughter was doped. Yet she assures us that those in charge acted in good faith. And the fact "that the border came", Walter Ulbricht didn’t do that just for fun, "that was the fault of the others".
‘50 kilometres of files’ brings the GDR’s history to life. Narrating the story using site-specific audio snippets works much better here than it did in the preceding project, ‘Verwisch die Spuren’ (obliterate the traces).
This is especially due to the fact that ‘50 kilometres of files’ tells its story over long stretches using documentary materials and real audio recordings. To create it, theatre collective Rimini Protokoll asked Berliners to talk about reading their Stasi files and went through tapes from the central switchboard of the GDR’s Ministry for State Security’s Central Operations Department. Their meticulous research pays off in their work.
The recordings of official phone calls are wonderful finds, conveying their typically fusty, sometimes almost drunk-sounding style, which would make the comrades’ reports seem like satire if only they weren’t so evil. Zealously and diligently, reports are made, responsibility permanently delegated, and someone’s personal fate calmly translated into that acrobatic dialect that is administrative German.
One former object of such surveillance has to smile, reading details in his file about his being followed during a bike demo. "Bike 3" gets himself another drink. "Bike 1" and "Bike 2" part after "taking leave of each other with a wave". He comments, "Totally absurd, as if that could have saved Socialism."
During their wanderings listeners find out all kinds of details about everyday life under surveillance. Callers greet their eavesdroppers on the phone and wish them a “good day” at the end of a call, for example. A representative of the church peace movement was sure he was being spied on, which was proven by the fact that every time he moved he got a telephone within three months. Normal citizens had to wait up to ten years for one.
Rimini Protokoll has also built in some playful elements here. Staff from ‘Central Command’ occasionally send out short messages giving orders such as "Meet at 5pm at the World Time Clock" or "Stay at the traffic lights and watch the building opposite". These are designed to evoke a bit of paranoia and recreate the atmosphere of the time. There are also a few passages produced in the studio incorporating other sounds or instructions to follow passers-by.
You can also follow other participants as they wander as red headphone-dots across the map shown on the phone. From ‘Central Command’ you can even eavesdrop on them - if you want to you can ‘tune in’ at any point and listen in on the recording that someone else has in their headphones at that station.
The strength of this site-specific radio play is however less that it turns the hunter into the hunted and the eavesdropper into the eavesdroppee, even if you could philosophise wonderfully about the double meanings of this kind of play. Its real strength lies more in the documentary material and in the stories of the protagonists that the theatre collective has found. Perhaps it doesn’t even need the concrete sites. It’s sometimes almost annoying that a story doesn’t continue like a normal radio play when the listener leaves the space designated for its narration.
That’s not to say that listening while walking adds nothing to the experience; on the contrary, it’s quite a pleasure. When the woman from the Presse Café who wanted to the leave the GDR reconstructs the events of the winter of 1985 for example, it seems particularly real. The listener is relieved to find out that her husband was allowed to follow her into the West soon afterwards. His exit visa bore the same date stamp as her papers. The Stasi was just testing them.
This walk-in Stasi radio play is a Rimini Protokoll project, financed by Deutschlandradio Kultur, Hebbel am Ufer theatre and the Berlin Senat and will run until the 13th of June 2011. Phones can be collected at the starting point at the Television Tower (Fernsehturm) opposite the Rathauspassage. From the 14th of June the piece will also be available as a free downloadable app for Android phones.


50 Aktenkilometer