Anderson: Berlin Review

The lies of others.

A polished documentary about the lingering aftershocks of a real-life spying case among the underground art community in Cold War Berlin.

BERLIN -- A recurring subject at the Berlin Film Festival over the past decade has been the city's ongoing reckoning with its painful Cold War past, throwing up countless stories of espionage and betrayal from the old Communist era. Premiered at this year's Berlinale, Anderson is more interesting than most variations on this theme because of its ambivalent moral shadings and still-raw emotional wounds.

A true story with echoes of Germany's 2006 Oscar winner The Lives of Others, director Annekatrin Hendel's stylish and thoughtful documentary turns a small historical episode into a universal fable of sex, lies and double lives. It should win further festival play, with solid potential for small-screen interest outside German-speaking markets.

PHOTOS: THR's Berlin Directors Roundtable

Alexander "Sascha" Anderson was a pivotal player in Communist East Berlin's underground art scene during the 1980s. A writer, designer, musician and well-connected social operator, he had a sphere of influence that included artists, journalists and diplomats on both sides of the Wall. With his boyish good looks and John Lennon glasses, he also enjoyed a kind of pop-star glamor, stealing wives and breaking up marriages.

But following the end of the Cold War, Anderson was unmasked as a long-serving undercover informant for East Germany's notorious secret police, the Stasi. Even after he was allowed to settle in West Berlin in 1986, he continued to spy on his "subversive" artist friends for his Communist handlers. Only in 1991 was he finally exposed in a savage public attack by the respected political protest singer Wolf Biermann.

Almost 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell, and over a decade since Anderson published a slippery and unrepentant memoir, his story remains divisive. Hendel's documentary features extensive interviews with the man himself plus colleagues, former friends and ex-lovers. Many now despise him, some forgive him, but most simply find his two-faced behavior baffling. Now a 60-year-old designer and publisher, Anderson offers a range of excuses and explanations for his past misdeeds, but stops short of apology. At times he seems as confused as those he betrayed.

PHOTOS: 25 of the Most Anticipated Foreign Films of 2014

Anderson is full of witty and creative touches. At various points Hendel divides the screen into a patchwork of talking heads to illustrate how history breaks down into competing, conflicted narratives. She also mocks up a studio reconstruction of the homely literary salon where Anderson once held court with his East Berlin friends, and visits a recent exhibition in which visual artist Cornelia Schleime transforms her old Stasi files into paintings.

On the soundtrack, bursts of ominous electronic noise by Berlin-based band To Rococo Rot invoke a lost era of Cold War paranoia and clunky surveillance technology. A handful of vintage East German protest-rock songs also feature, including some of Anderson's own lyrics and poetry, which former friends attempt to decode for signs of guilt.

On reflection, most interviewees concede that Anderson's prolific reports to his Stasi handlers did not result in any serious harm, so it is easy to see why some are prepared to forgive and forget. But Hendel's film seems less concerned with apportioning blame than in mapping the psychological and emotional aftershocks of treachery decades later. The result is a fascinating real-life spy thriller, even if it fails to pin down any definitive truth, and leaves plenty of questions unanswered.

Producers: It Works! Medien, Berlin
Producers: Maria Wischnewski, Holly Tischman
Cast: Sascha Anderson, Wilfriede Maass, Bert Papenfuss, Roland Jahn
Director: Annekatrin Hendel
Writer: Annekatrin Hendel
Cinematographers: Frank Griebe, Jule Cramer
Editor: Jorg Hauschild
Music: To Rococo Rot, Herbst in Peking, Grussaugust
Sales company: It Works! Medien, Berlin
Unrated, 90 minutes