In “The Diplomat,” premiering Tuesday on ESPN, directors Senain Kheshgi and Jennifer Arnold look at figure skater Katarina Witt in the context of her changing times. (It shows as part of the network’s documentary series “Nine for IX,” as in Title IX, about women in sports.) Witt’s career began in what used to be called East Germany and ended in the reunified state; it’s a story from back when the developed world was divided into capitalist and communist, and the twain met only with difficulty — and perhaps most often through athletics.
“Nowadays people act like sport is completely apolitical,” says Egon Krenz, the last communist head of East Germany, whose leadership style earned him 6½ years in prison for manslaughter after the nation dissolved. “But during the Cold War, East versus West, politics played a big role in sports.” Athletes were the German Democratic Republic’s best product, the source of its prestige in the wider world. (Readers whose memories reach back beyond reunification will recall the GDR as an Olympics force; there were drugs involved, but also the benefits of state-supported training.)
Witt’s talent was obvious early — we see her in old training films, spinning in the air suspended from a kind of block and tackle at her hometown rink in Karl-Marx-Stadt, now called Chemitz, under the tutelage of coach Jutta Müller, still coaching. “She saw the passion I had for that sport,” says Witt. Not just to compete, “but to be creative.”
She was a hero of the state, which also made her, in a way, its property — a property they were determined not to lose. Because they traveled the world, athletes had a better idea of what they were missing at home, and opportunities to defect. (Such an old-timey word.) Witt was not eager to leave home — indeed, she was a willing spokesperson for the system: “Our athletes are often admired abroad and asked what is the secret to our success,” she says at one public gathering. “The answer lies in our socialist democratic society, the GDR. The future is on our side, the side of socialism.”
Of course, she was was privileged within that system — in an era of economic stagnation and few available quality goods, Witt lived comfortably — but she was also a prisoner of it, spied upon from the age of 7, bugged and photographed by the Stasi, the East German secret police, and informed upon by “friends” and colleagues. (Not that there was much to report; but as with America’s own Hoover-era FBI files, there usually isn’t.) They were “people I had spent time with on the ice and off the ice,” Witt now recalls. “And I know who those people are.” Pair-skating champion Ingo Steuer was one of them: “It’s a black spot in my history,” he says here, “but I can’t erase it.” The code name for her Stasi file was “Flop.”
Still, she aspired to more than the state was inclined to give. “We never wanted the professionalization of sport,” says Krenz; athletes were meant to find other work when their race was run. But with a skater like Witt, whose sport was also an art, there were other possibilities. Beautiful and gifted, she was an international superstar. (Western sports commentator No. 1: “She certainly is a beautiful lady, isn’t she?” Commentator No. 2: “Gorgeous.”) She saw her future contracting, as it had for Müller’s own daughter, Gaby Seyfert, seen here in a 1970 farewell performance, only two years after winning an Olympic silver medal.
With that in mind, Müller helped Witt extract a promise from the government that, should she win gold at the 1988 Olympics as she had in 1984, she would be allowed to work professionally outside the country; it must have seemed a good bet to the authorities — no female skater had won back-to-back gold in 52 years. (And so, Witt says, “I had no other choice than to skate better than ever.”) She won, and in 1989 was in Spain filming “Carmen on Ice” with Brian Boitano as 50,000 protesters massed in the streets of Leipzig, chanting, “We are the nation!” And suddenly the Wall, which people had once died attempting to breach, was coming down.
The story takes unexpected turns. You think: “The wall’s down: the end.” But because Witt benefited from the largess of the state, she also earned the wrath of the people when that state was dismantled — transitionally, she became a pariah. (“Whore!” she is called.) But that was a long time ago now: The images of young skaters working at Witt’s old home rink betoken ease, freedom, prosperity.
“The Diplomat” is a deceptively complicated film about talent and privilege, art and sport, self-knowledge and self-deception, loyalty and betrayal and the way that living in a police state with utopian pretensions makes those things triply hard to untangle. It is less about what made Witt a great skater — it is hardly about that at all, really — though there is enough performance footage, run sometimes at length, to show you or remind you that she was.