I was told that I could get in touch with the prison's press association to see if I could get permission to come back and explore the museum without being corralled around with a tour group. I emailed them and was surprised that I had gotten permission. I could choose when I wanted to return, notify the front desk, and get a press pass.
So, I knew I was going to go to the gloomy area of Berlin called Hohenschonhausen a third time. Each of those times, they've been on cloudy, just-about-to-rain days, so that the Soviet-era block buildings blend into the sky, with their odd-shaped little windows looking like peepholes in a ceiling of cement. I have to keep reminding myself that this was the environment and atmosphere where East Germans contended with suspicions that they were being watched by family and friends working for the Stasi (there are places in Germany such as Rostock where it is believed that informants may have made up approximately one fifth of total population, including people who were bribed or threatened into doing it).
I got lost going there. Just like with the Stasi Prison, the neighborhood was full of those emotionless buildings with their judgmental windows. Took me an extra hour of walking around to realize one of the huge buildings I'd passed before which looked condemned, was actually part of the former HQ complex. I was thrown off because that part of it was now a medical centre. The museum portion was not visible from the street. That complicated things a bit. When I actually got to the museum, I only had an hour until the tour began, but I was allowed to walk around. After the building was taken, it had been preserved pretty much as it had been found, sans documents. Those documents were sorted and organized in the building next door, which anyone can go and look at. That's right--after the Wall, people could go and check their personal Stasi file, and uncover who, if anyone, had been keeping track of them. Stories of families, loved ones and children ratting people out surfaced because of this, but I think it's really great that the government fallowing the GDR's collapse made the files available. I'm half-tempted to apply to look through some files myself, just for pure morbid historical curiosity (I've checked, and this is allowed, as long as I give some sort of evidence that I'm interested for purely academic purposes). Of course, the files are probably almost 100% in German, and the files that aren't are probably in Russian, unless there are telephone transcripts from American diplomats or something. What struck me about the place was how kitsch it was. Mielke didn't want the interior decor updated since the 60s, and the technology inside only makes it feel even more like walking into a time machine. The image of the oppressive Stasi in my head went from machevellian demons wondering how best to subjugate their population, to an image of businessmen discussing progress with champagne and three-course dinners, in suits and ties and briefcases.
Anyway, the Stasi HQ was stormed after the wall came down, with protesters flooding into the place and recovering Stasi files before they could be destroyed by Stasi. Considering the complex was armed to the teeth, it's a wonder that there were no lunatics among the Stasi employees who grabbed a gun and started firing. I found the story of this grassroots movement to expose the apparatus of cruelty that the Stasi had been operating very inspiring, even more so because of the fact that my tour guide had been one of the protesters, had in fact negotiated with the Stasi's replacement head after Erich Mielke was arrested. One of the videos playing in the museum actually showed him bringing camera crews through the HQ office after it had been sacked. Very interesting, but unfortunately the tour was so overcrowded that some people were unable to fit into the rooms that the tour covered. I almost wish I'd skipped the tour because of this. I could have spent a lot more time photographing and drawing the place. As it was, I had only about an hour before the tour and an hour after the tour to do this.
Okay, so back to the prison. I went in at around 11:00, which gave me about 7 hours to work. I had a chocolate bar that my AirBNB host had given me the night before for food. I met the guy who was to give me my press pass. He was actually really young, with a hipster haircut and ear piercing. I wanted to be "super humble artist guy," so I emphasized that I'd be all polite and respectful to the museum and whatnot, as he told me what I could and couldn't do. Basically, I couldn't sit on the floors without use of a chair, and I had to not interrupt tour groups. I got a folding chair from a storage room which I believe used to be a prison informer's office and drew the hallways and various types of rooms of the Prison. There are three basic types of cells still left intact from the East German days. There are the unforgiving underground cells for prisoners who proved hard to interrogate, the standard cells with sinks and toilets which were more common and even allowed for multiple cell occupants (though the second cell inmates were usually prisoners who had been promised rewards to spy on their fellow inmates). Then there are the padded and pitch-black cells, also underground. Those last cells are basically impossible to properly photograph or sketch, so I left them out. There used to be water cells and standing cells (cells which forced prisoners to be immersed in water up to the shoulders or force them to stay standing due to how narrow they were), but those fell into disuse and were eventually gotten rid of entirely.
I rounded the main building multiple times, looking for unique things to draw. There were a lot of weird little things I came across. For example, some rooms were hung with tacky photographic prints, yellowed with age. These were mostly in the interrogation rooms. Most rooms were wallpapered as well, in decor that would have been vomit-inducing even forty years ago. Such kitsch in a place where psychological torture was routine gave the place an otherworldly vibe in the prison. I'd love to find some way of making use of these motifs in my art, but I really don't know how yet. I'm almost overwhelmed thinking of the possibilities, whether to just make fairly realistic pieces based on the drawings, or if I should creatively alter them into something else.
In total, I made 8 decent sketches.I think I got a good amount, but I could see myself going back for more. I think my second time in the prison was one of the highlights of my time in Germany. I'm so thankful to the museum staff for letting me go back unescorted with minimal red tape.
Some of the work that's coming from these times in the Stasi prison/HQ are in my last blog post, if interested. I'll be sure to post more work that comes from my sketches as it comes along.