J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tribeca ’13: The Diplomat

Once described as “the most beautiful face of socialism,” she would eventually pose for Playboy.  As a back-to-back Olympic gold medalist, Katarina Witt represented the greatest success of the East German athletic program.  Yet, in light of subsequent revelations, she might be the most deeply confused former East German about the Communist era.  At least, such seems to be the case judging from Jennifer Arnold & Senain Kheshgi’s documentary profile, The Diplomat, produced as part of ESPN Films’ Nine for IX series, several of which screen during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

Witt clearly had the X factor at an early age, attracting East Germany’s preeminent figure skating coach and abundant state support.  She was duly grateful for both.  As she began winning championships, Witt became an important symbol for state propaganda.  She did her part willingly.  Yet, she was always aware her opportunities to travel outside the closed country were a rare blessing.

What Witt did not realize until after the fall of the Wall was the level of surveillance the state maintained on her, despite her dutiful service.  She was also shocked to learn several friends spied on her for the dreaded Stasi, including a remorseful fellow figure skater, whom Arnold & Kheshgi interview at length.

Although she remains an important international sports figure, Witt still seems unsure how to process everything that happened post-1989.  We see how staggered she was by the outpouring of East German resentment when the size and extent of GDR state subsidies to athletes was revealed.  She argues Olympics medalists like her did something extraordinary on the world stage, thereby earning their compensation.  That is a completely reasonable position, but a far cry from “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

While they are understandably reluctant to dig-in and challenge Witt, Arnold & Kheshgi thoroughly establish the oppressive nature of the GDR and the intrusive methods of the Stasi, much to their credit.  Some of their best talking head commentary comes from the post-Unification custodians of the Stasi Archives.  For further creepy context, they also scored a sit down with Moscow’s final GDR hardliner Egon Krenz, who once headed the captive nation’s athletic machine, but would eventually be convicted for crimes committed against the German people.

For many Americans watching the Olympics, Witt was always a kind of ice queen.  The Diplomat offers a fuller, more complicated picture.  It is hard to say how much she was and still is in a state of denial.  Yet, it is clear anyone born into such a system with any sort of talent would have to navigate some thorny situations.  An intriguing portrait of a gifted athlete representing a system rife with “internal contradictions,” The Diplomat screens again as part of a double bill with No Limits this Saturday (4/27) during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

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