HOW important is art as a voice of opposition? And how does state censorship change the content and presentation of that art? These are the complex but fascinating questions at the centre of a new documentary about theatre in the GDR by Scottish filmmaker Susan Kemp, showing at Glasgow Film Theatre on Wednesday.

The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and recent TV shows like Deutschland 83 brought the former East Germany back into public consciousness, but the socialist republic – which disappeared when Germany was reunified in 1990 – has long held a fascination for many.

Kemp, a former BBC documentary-maker, now co-director of Edinburgh University’s postgraduate film course, is among them, and she jumped at the chance to film there when a colleague from the university’s German department, Prof Laura Bradley, commissioned Glasgow-based playwright Peter Arnott to write a play about her academic research on theatre censorship in the GDR.

From the creation of the state in 1949, theatre was the GDR’s most vibrant, daring – and indeed popular – artform, with playwrights like Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Muller feted around the world and responsible for new directions in theatre that are still influential today.

The communist regime was outwardly supportive of this vibrancy and success, but under the surface it was threatened, and censors were sent to every play. And, as in every area of GDR society, feared state security service the Stasi was involved, actively spying on actors, writers and directors, a situation beautifully explored in the Oscar-winning 2006 film, The Lives of Others.

Kemp, who has also made documentaries on filmmaker Antonia Bird and Shetland poet Robert Alan Jamieson, travelled to Berlin and Dresden and met the people and places making some of the best theatre during the sixties, seventies and eighties.

“To go to Berlin and have access to places like the Berlin Ensemble and the Volksbuhne, to talk to directors and writers who worked in the East during that time was absolutely wonderful,” she says. “As a filmmaker it always feels exciting to get access beyond the tourist gate, to be able to go beneath the surface and look into the corners, go behind doors and ask about the things that are unseen.”

Below the surface sat a wealth of fascinating material, as the film makes clear.

“Of course officially there was no censorship,” Kemp adds. “It wasn’t acknowledged. There was more of an understanding that if you go to certain places in your work and do certain things there may be consequences. And so the artists had to be very clever.

“For example Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife, who ran the Berliner Ensemble, was very clever in how she dealt with the authorities. As we outline in the film, she would talk to the censors as if they were all experts – ‘Of course, you must know this Greek drama we’re doing’. They knew nothing but didn’t want to be seen to know nothing, so it very difficult for them to tell her what she could or couldn’t do. Weigel was a master at getting things through the system.

“But there was an extreme nature to the risk. Prison was a risk, maybe not on a day to day basis, but everyone was aware in the background that people were being taken away. I filmed the Stasi prison because I thought it was important to understand that threat – it was utterly chilling.

“But, of course, when you have to go and do your shopping, pay your bills, get on with your life, it doesn’t sit with you in the same way. You just get on with it, you have to. And that was so interesting to explore.”

Another strand of the film explores the experience of Arnott, one of Scotland’s most successful contemporary playwrights, as he grapples to make the issues the film highlights into a play in Glasgow.

“Peter was wrestling with a complex and rather undramatic subject, and trying to make it dramatic, which was not straightforward at all,” says Kemp.

“Then you’ve got Laura, an academic who is willing to give up her work to a creative person and say ‘do with it what you will’. That’s a pretty brave thing to do. That conflict was very interesting, especially as Peter became ill during filming and wasn’t actually able to come with us to Berlin.”

In the end, Kemp successfully brings all these elements together to create a fascinating insight into the artistic process and its struggles, that works on different levels.

“What I’m trying to do is make connections,” she explains. “And the issues we explored in GDR have resonance today. If people risk prison for what they believe in or what they say, then what sort of world are we living in? We must be aware of this in contemporary society.”

Writing Ensemble is at GFT on Wednesday November 9 at 6pm, followed by a Q&A with Susan Kemp, Peter Arnott and Prof Laura Bradley.