What was it like to grow up in the most surveillanced society in history? And just what are the possible after-effects when that heavy-handed system of secret police and informers all comes apart in a matter of weeks? Petra Epperlein grew up in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and was a very young woman at the time of its rather sudden collapse in 1989. In the fascinating new film that bears the title of her hometown, Epperlein (who co-directed the film along with her husband-partner Michael Tucker) explains that there was nothing that extraordinary about her childhood where she, along with her family and millions of other East German citizens, played the “go along to get along” game as well as possible. But when her seemingly well-adjusted father commits suicide a decade after re-unification, the questions that arise would eventually lead to this documentary. What the couple came up with is a work that combines elements of a personal film essay with an engrossing retrospective deep dive into the history of the GDR’s infamous secret police (known as the Stasi) with some relevant cautionary signposts for our society along the way.
“Karl Marx City” does start out a bit slowly, with Epperlein’s cautious buildup of the narrative of her family’s fairly normal life within the context of a repressive Eastern Bloc nation. Or was it all as unremarkable as it seemed. When it’s discovered that her father was receiving anonymous and vaguely threatening letters prior to taking his own life, it becomes imperative to probe deeper and eventually led Epperlein back to city where she grew up, which is notable for having a bust of Karl Marx’s head that is so colossal that they didn’t even bother trying to knock it down when most symbols of the old regime (most notably the Berlin Wall) met a similar fate in late 1989 and early 1990.
Petra Epperlein has produced several films with her husband, the most well known probably being “Gunner Palace” from 2004, about young American soldiers stationed at one of Saddam Hussein’s palatial compounds during the Iraq War. Here, Petra goes before the camera in many scenes, more often than not holding her boom mic, interviewing her former neighbors or experts in the field of Iron Curtain dirty dealings. And what a business it was. East Germany was a country with a population of about 17 million but with 92,000 secret police officers aided by some 200,000 informers.
Karl Mark City, with 12,000 snitches all to itself, is presented as a microcosm of the country, with constant snooping and a population permanently divided by mistrust—the real Orwellian 1984. In a land where it’s said if three people are sitting at a table, one is an informer, Epperlein has to at least speculate that maybe her dad was one of those informers.
In the dual pursuit of personal closure and historical reporting, the directors spend a good chunk of the film’s middle third inside the mammoth vaults of the Stasi’s former headquarters, where former GDR citizens can view the files of themselves and family. Here among the 111 kilometers of aisles are some 41 million index cards (!!) of gathered personal information. This is where “KMC” really gains some heft, as we begin to feel the mind-boggling end result of the state’s pathological pursuit of “conspiratorial objectives” (in the memorable phrase of an ex-Stasi agent). Epperlein and Tucker also make great use of old surveillance camera footage, blending it in with their own stark B&W imagery, and making for a beguiling re-creation of a place where “the enemy is everyone.”
In the case of Epperlein’s father, some of those old dictates seems to have carried over. And although there is some closure and a measure of redemption here for Epperlein and her family, there is no skirting the issue of the long psychic hangover after the fall of the GDR. The former socialist state has had significant problems with de-population as people (esp. younger women) have fled to the former West Germany and elsewhere: it’s asserted that Karl Marx City (which quickly reverted to its historical name of Chemnitz) had the lowest birth rate in the world soon after re-unification, while whole neighborhoods were left deserted, waiting for demolition. The use of “conspirative objectives” to gain political advantage is a problem not confined to former police states, as the recent U.S. election has shown us. At the recent screening of “Karl Marx City” at the Salem (MA) Film Fest where I saw this, Epperlein stressed the needed “responsibility to be vigilant of a democratic state.” These are words that should be well-heeded from someone who grew up in a place that was “stuck between an abandoned past and an unredeemed future.”