‘The Diplomat’: Olympic Gold and the Stasi

“I always looked up to her,” says Ingo Steuer. “I was always on the rod with Katarina. And the State saw me as very close to her, someone who traveled with Kati.” Steuer, a German figure skater, is talking about Katarina Witt. But he’s not telling a story about his friendship with the four-time World and two-time Olympic champion. Rather, he’s talking about how he betrayed her.

Steuer was just 17 or 18, he recalls in the Nine For IX documentary The Diplomat, when he received a visit from a man he “knew,” a man he “used to see every day at the rink.” As he remembers what happened next — “They gave me a piece of paper, they pushed a lamp and said, ‘Read this and sign!'” — the film offers a bit of noirish reenactment, a close up of a paper and an ominous lamp. Ingo says that he felt threatened by the word “prison” on the paper, and so he signed. “I really just wanted to skate,” he says now, as you see the current-day Steuer from a distance, looking down and stubbing his toe into ice at the rink where ne now coaches. “I mean,” he adds, “I was 17 years old, I was shocked.” And so he reacted like a frightened young person, like an athlete who owed his training and opportunities to the State. He signed the paper.

Steuer’s distress over this moment is still visible in his face, even now, some 30 years after the event. He was enlisted by the Stasi to ensure that Witt, who was then the GDR’s most popular and “most beautiful” representative, would not defect. “If this had happened,” Steuer says, “it would have been a catastrophe.” The Stasi’s fears were at once well founded and not, according to Witt, who is in fact the focus of Jennifer Arnold and Senain Kheshgi’s documentary.

Her context is clear from the moment the film begins with elegant, beautifully crafted long shots of Karl Marx Stadt, the skating rink where Witt trained as a child and young champion with the legendary Jutta Müller. Witt points out that she was able to do this work she loved precisely because she was in the GDR. “My parents, if they lived in America, they never would have had the money to pay for the sport,” she says. “My career was supported by the State.” For this, Witt remains grateful, though she recalls too that she was also worried from a young age about her future. She knew she would be unable to pursue a career in skating — even as she saw fellow competitors like America’s Brian Boitano skate professionally. With help from Müller, Witt was able to make a deal with the State: if she won a second gold medal, at the 1988 Olympic Games, she would be allowed to tour the world as a skater, and also a representative for the grandeur of the GDR

Witt remains diplomatic as she describes her past in the film, lovely, formal, even regal as she sits at a skating rink for her interview. The State’s version of events is articulated in The Dilplomat by former East German leader Egon Krenz: he appears in archival footage, looking vibrant as he addresses an audience concerning the State’s strength and resolve; in an interview today, he offers context but not explanation for the GDR’s efforts to control its citizens. It’s true that all individuals were expected to contribute to the socialist ideal, he says, but he doesn’t describe how that ideal was lost, how individuals within the government and the Stasi more specifically became corrupt, how they served to repress citizens. The film underscores this point by showing, in reenactments, how microphones were planted in apartments and athlete’s mail was monitored. One panning shot follows the wires leading from a bug located on the wall of a skating rink, a shot that leads nowhere but makes clear the threat of such ever present surveillance.

Even as these images might make you cringe — and perhaps remind you of current debates about US agencies collecting data on phone calls and internet communications — the film complicates Witt’s story. As much as she is a victim of Stasi efforts to monitor her travel and activities, she was, in the end, a privileged citizen, a point made public when the Berlin Wall, erected in 1961, came down in 1989. At this point, Stasi and other East German government files were exposed, revealing not only who spied or informed on whom, and the awful extents to which friends and family members were coerced to spy on one another, but also who benefited from the State’s efforts to control everyone. Witt was a celebrity, and as such, she had a nice car, a penthouse apartment, even a country home, and for this she was attacked in the new free(r) press and in other public forums.

Here again, she appears a diplomat, sitting carefully on the set of a television talk show, subjecting herself to questions. She maintains that she was deserving of some special treatment, given her service to the State: she did what she was told and expected to do, Witt says, and for this, she shouldn’t be punished or criticized, even after the rules as she understood them have changed. It’s in this context that another dimension of Witt’s tact and understanding of the complex workings of politics emerges, as she’s asked about her relationship with Ingo Steuer. For it’s not only her files that are available since eth Wall fell, but his and other informants’ too. The State, she notes, had watched her since she was seven years old, using Steuer and other associates to do so.

“Katarina’s a smart girl,” says Boitano, “I mean, she’s the woman who convinced a government to let her go out of the country.” She says now that she was lucky, “at the right time, at the right place.” The film here shows the rink being refurbished so that a next generation of young skaters might train there. “Everybody has their own reasons” she says now, “No one had hurt me, but then I always think, why did they have to do it? You know, in a way, maybe they had to survive. So, it’s their story.” And hers too.

RATING 8 / 10