In the hours before his suicide in 1999, Petra Epperlein’s father washed his car, burned his personal papers, and mailed his daughter a cryptic note along with a postcard she had sent him some years earlier. The death seemed to come out of nowhere for Epperlein and her two brothers; their father had been a prototypical mustachioed, hard-working family man who labored to give his children the best life he could in their corner of East Germany. But there was the matter of the mysterious blackmail threat that arrived at their home not long after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the fact that their father had been able to get his sons out of military training thanks to what had been described as a favor from a friend. In the years since his suicide, a suspicion has bugged the family: Did their father, in fact, work with the Stasi, the powerful secret police that turned East Germany into the most paranoid and efficient surveillance state in the world?
This is the question that drives Karl Marx City, an essayistic and very effective documentary by Epperlein and Michael Tucker, her husband and co-director on earlier films like Gunner Palace and Fightville. Its title is a translation of the East German name of Epperlein’s hometown, Chemnitz, a city about the size of Cincinnati that has suffered the worst of post-reunification industrial decline. Shot by Tucker mostly in stark black-and-white, the film is drawn to the detritus of the totalitarian state. There is the gargantuan bust of Marx that stands as the last remnant of Chemnitz’s Cold War-era public art, having been judged too big to move; the paternoster elevators, rolling stacks, and dumbwaiters of the Stasi archive; explanations of the agency’s methods for opening and resealing mail and the way agents would consult reference Polaroids to put back everything as it was after a secret search—a technique identical to the one used to maintain continuity on movie sets at the time.
Karl Marx City stokes this fascination with all things Stasi to demythologize it. One interviewee explains why he refused to help with the making of the Oscar-winning The Lives Of Others on the grounds that, while gentiles helping Jews in Nazi Germany was a historical fact (the film had been pitched to him as a Cold War Schindler’s List), there was no record whatsoever of Stasi agents helping their targets, and telling a story about one who did would amount to a gross misunderstanding of the moral horror of the surveillance state. Another, a former Stasi agent, recounts the lengths his department would go to conduct raids and blackmail ordinary citizens into becoming informants, before admitting that in his entire career, he never found anything more incriminating than a handwritten schedule of West German TV broadcasts. “The Stasi were exceptional cameramen,” declares the voice-over before the viewer is presented with excerpts from the untold hours of useless 16mm and video footage of East Germans going about their lives that the Stasi catalogued alongside its microfilm archive of handwriting samples and its vast collection of surveillance reports.
Pulling triple duty as point-of-view character, co-director, and sound recordist, Epperlein interviews both her own family members and academic experts, whose specialties range from suicide to the reconstruction of shredded documents. For all its post-modern drollery (for example, the third-person narration, read by Tucker and Epperlein’s daughter) and ruminations on totalitarian culture and the German language, Karl Marx City is at heart a psychological family drama—the story of a tightly knit household that outlived an oppressive society, only to find itself faced with a doubt about the past that amounts to an existential quandary. After acknowledging the complicated process involved in requesting, finding, and retrieving files from the Stasi’s surviving archives, Epperlein and Tucker hold off until the final stretch to unseal the answer to that burning question. What they come to passes that most essential test of non-fiction narrative—which is to say, it would be just as troubling and affecting if it were a work of fiction.