Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives

AMONG THE MANY cautionary examples cited by critics of the US security and surveillance establishment, the German Democratic Republic’s Stasi stands out in bold relief. The organization employed over ninety thousand full-time spies and police—but the truly depressing figure is its nearly two hundred thousand informants (some estimates run as high as two million). Since the wall fell in 1989, films, memoirs, and historical accounts have described a society riven with suspicion among colleagues, friends, and family members; a lot of citizens were their brothers’ keepers. Berlin-based artist Simon Menner spent two years researching the files of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives of the former GDR to unearth the photographs he has gathered for this dark but unavoidably comic volume. Menner’s collection focuses on images pulled from manuals dealing with espionage tradecraft, as well as actual photos from surveillance operations. A hint of the absurdist humor to come shows in the table of contents’ listing of manual titles—“Wigs and Their Application,” “Disguising as Western Tourists,” “Staged Arrests,” and “Practicing the Application of Fake Beards.” The images are constructed in the matter-of-fact manner of any instructional guide—compositional nuance ceding to the requirements of exposition. To teach agents to dress like “Western tourists,” two deadpan photos depict a pair of operatives, one sporting red pants and white sneakers, along with a jaunty fishing hat; the other wears aviator sunglasses and cutoff jeans that have been haphazardly sheared as if by a kindergartner with play scissors. Although recognizably “Western,” these models are rendered ridiculous not only by their blatant caricature, but by the numerous false fashion notes. Selected from “A Seminar for Disguises,” these two portraits (above) provide possible modes of dissembling for the same somewhat jowly fellow. But in each case his deliberately bland mien undoes whatever cloaking his garb might offer—he fails to inhabit any one of the costumes, managing instead to master the uncomfortable demeanor of a mail-order-catalogue model.

That these photos of fake mustaches, hand signals, and close-combat techniques all smack of the risibly ersatz doesn’t diminish their eerie power: The Stasi, despite its flat-footed training handbooks, proved effective enough. The photos in an “operations” section titled “Juveniles” document teenagers’ “pro-Western sympathies” by showing their bedroom walls festooned with Playboy centerfolds, along with Wile E. Coyote and Madonna posters. The police were probably right: If you’re sixteen and you dig Road Runner cartoons, you’re probably an existentialist with scant desire to serve the all-powerful state. A mentality predicated on surveillance and distrust finds emblematic expression in “Spies Photograph Spies,” featuring shots taken by Stasi agents observing other Stasi agents while they are observing others. But even that hall-of-mirrors weirdness is topped by a pair of images in which agents photograph themselves; Menner’s note that they had “probably attained the highest stage of . . . espionage training” is as grimly funny as it is profound.