As more people become aware of the global surveillance state, documentaries can take on the strength of political thrillers. Two years ago, Citizenfour both laid out the details of how governments watch us and put viewers alongside a whistleblower and the filmmakers as they colluded, inducing both general and empathetic paranoia. Now Karl Marx City travels back in time to a very different context, before the advent of mass electronic communication, when spying was much more personal and when no one could be under any illusion that they weren’t being constantly watched and listened to. Welcome to the German Democratic Republic of the Cold War, the most surveilled nation in human history.
Co-director Petra Epperlein grew up in East Germany, in the East Saxony city of Chemnitz, known during the Cold War as Karl Marx City. Though she left after the fall of the Berlin Wall, her time in the communist puppet state still haunts her. Ever since her father’s suicide in 1999, his cryptic final letter has left her wondering whether he was one of the many informants for the Ministry of State Security — the Stasi. Karl Marx City is Epperlein’s journey back to her former home, as she dives into the vast archive of information left behind in the wake of the GDR’s collapse to determine the truth.
As Epperlein and co-director Michael Tucker interview her family and old friends, as well as experts on the Stasi, they blend in her old home movies, cultural artifacts, period propaganda and, most chillingly, actual surveillance footage and other materials taken from the Stasi archive. It’s a glimpse of authoritarianism at both its most powerful and most banal. Agents talk casually as they watch their targets; they could easily be mistaken for any working stiff. And then a historian speaks of how they would break into people’s houses and rearrange their furniture while they were away, solely as a form of intimidation. To say nothing of the blackmail, imprisonments, torture and executions.
The doc effectively melds past and present into a haze of ambiguity around the truth of the matter. Constantly wearing headphones for sound work, Epperlein looks as if she herself could be a Stasi agent at a listening post. Stark sequences in black and white contribute to an eerie tone, as the camera constantly finds unsettling imagery to fixate on, such as an ominous giant bust of Marx which still watches over the city (it was “too heavy to move” as the film puts it in a cold bit of symbolism), or the hypnotic turning of the levers which operate the seemingly endless shelves of the Stasi library. Samples of films like the “red westerns” from the 1960s illuminate the Soviet mindset, while more modern depictions of the time like the movie The Lives of Others are used as examples of how we fail to understand that mindset. The push-pull between how the past truly was and how we understand it is the heart of the film.
The feat of editing that Karl Marx City pulls off is all the more remarkable when one rethinks the narrative through-line of the film and realizes that Epperlein’s actual quest is fairly straightforward. It’s in unfolding every detail around the questions she seeks to answer that the documentary is able to sketch this part of history, search out the gaps we have in it and interrogate which of those gaps can be filled in, and how, and what can be done about those that can’t be filled in. Both kinds will leave the viewer thinking long after the movie is finished.