The stylish and smartly constructed documentary Karl Marx City is a personal and rigorously researched look at the ghosts left behind following the fall of the German Democratic Republic. Co-director Petra Epperlein – working with collaborator Michael Tucker – searches in dark corners of East German history for answers about her late father’s past and brings to light injustices that have both gone overlooked and bear warnings about our current climate of surveillance culture.
Epperlein, who moved to the United States after a childhood spent in the titular city in East Germany (known pre-Communism and today as Chemnitz), lost her father, Wolfgang, in 1999 to suicide. Although it wasn’t her seemingly well adjusted father’s first attempt at taking his own life (that was the early ’90s, shortly after the fall of Communism), it was still a shock to Petra, her mothers, and twin brothers that he would commit such an act. It got Petra thinking about a series of anonymous letters sent to her father in the early ’90s, just after the fall of Communism, accusing him of working as an informant for the East German secret police, the Stasi. Next to being called a Nazi, the worst thing one could call an East German is a Stasi member or snitch. With Karl Marx City, Petra seeks to find out if her father was harbouring a secret shame that led to his breakdown and suicide. But which is worse: finding out that your father was a member of one of the most notoriously fascist police forces in history or that he committed suicide for reasons that could forever remain a mystery?
The Stasi remains a thorny issue in German history, and it isn’t hard to see why people are still reticent to talk to Epperlein and Tucker about their experiences inside and outside of the organization. The East German population at the height of the Stasi was 17 million, and there were at least 90,000 proper agents of the secret police with a suspected 200,000 civilian informants. It was often joked that if three people were sitting down and having a conversation at least one had some role with the Stasi. Today, the people of Germany can make public requests to look at previously secret Stasi files that were made on family members, but Petra’s work to track down information about her father is easier said than done.
The East German people were the most surveilled culture in history (that we have proof of today), and German authorities are still trying valiantly to sort through every bit of surviving information, even going as far as meticulously recreating previously shredded documents contained in 20,000 garbage bags. Finding answers for Petra could take years, and even then it’s unsure if her answers about Wolfgang’s past will bring her any sort of closure. Even if she does find any sort of documentation that she’s looking for, the validity of what she finds will always be questionable since all Stasi documentation comes with its own bias and slant, much of it based in speculation and little in fact.
Karl Marx City is a heavy film to take in, but a powerful, poignant, and ultimately bittersweet bit of personal filmmaking. Petra’s aims are noble and commendable, and the academics, historians, family members, and former Stasi agents willing to talk to her explicitly understand why she needs to see this project through to the end. The interviews conducted by Epperlein – who appears on screen often as her own sound technician – are blunt, informative, and as honest as her scarred subjects are likely to get when talking about an organization that ruined millions of lives throughout Germany. Everyone here seems to understand that closure isn’t the point of Karl Marx City, but elucidation about what East Germans went through is.
Epperlein refers to herself throughout her narration in the third person, which in most other documentaries would seem overly cute, but here makes sense as she wants to get viewers in the former East German Communist mindset of being a part of a collective whether they like it or not. She also films in a stylish form of black and white that gives off the feeling of a punk rock version of a spy thriller, and makes numerous visual references to the popular 2006 Oscar winning film The Lives of Others – a German film about a Stasi member trying to covertly help the people he has been assigned to keep tabs on – often eviscerating it as a work of pure fiction that might have done more harm to German history than good. Epperlein knows that creating a historical account of the actions of the Stasi could prove impossible and possibly even dangerous at this point, given that many former members still believe in their oaths of lifelong silence, but through her personal mission there’s a hope for a better sense of remembrance and recognition of those who were lost than what previously existed.
It also goes without saying that Karl Marx City – which boasts plenty of now declassified surveillance footage, secret audio recordings, and propaganda materials – has a lot of subtle things to say about the current state of security forces around the world. It’s very easy to see that what happened in Chemnitz could happen again, and even easier to question if it isn’t happening already.