You know those movies where the main character uncovers some kind of conspiracy and, at every corner, keeps finding out that people she knows are “in on it”? Well, that actually may have been what real life was like for many under the German Democratic Republic before the Berlin Wall came down.
For forty years, the Ministry of State Security (or, Stasi) recruited tens of thousands of informants to spy on citizens. These informants were not dark figures in trench coats and fedoras; they could be your friends, your colleagues, your pastor—or even your father.
Narrator Matilda Tucker of the documentary Karl Marx City describes that surveillance was internalized, and obedience generated among citizens. She describes the decades of footage from the Stasi archives as “reality on display, a kind of documentary truth.” It’s just people living their boring, mundane lives. But they’re afraid, and that’s what matters.
Throughout the film, co-director Petra Epperlein investigates if her father was a secret informant. Her father had killed himself. Before he died, he had burned all of his photographs and letters, and he mailed Petra an enigmatic letter stating that it was a good time to leave Germany.
Years earlier, he had received anonymous letters accusing him of being a Stasi informant and threatening to expose him. The accusation, coupled with his suicide and his mysterious activity preceding it, led Petra to wonder what the truth was. Was he an informant? If so, why? What made him kill himself? What was he trying to convey in his suicide note?
Here in New York City, the film was playing at Film Forum, and I was able to attend a showing which was followed by a Q&A with the directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker. (To say that it was unnerving to record the directors after watching their movie about surveillance, is an understatement.)
Petra and Michael are married, and this was not their first joint project, as they have made nine other documentaries together. They are a team effort, Petra said; he does the camerawork, she does the sound, and they edit together.
This film, however, is far more personal than their others, particularly for Petra, as she is the main character. She expounded in the Q&A on what it was like to go through the journey of uncovering the truth about her father with the cameras rolling.
An audience member said it seemed like she had no idea how the story was going to end as they were making the movie. “Exactly,” she said. While filming, it wasn’t confirmed whether or not her father was a Stasi informant yet. It was clear that however, the documentary ended, the truth would change her life forever, and, amazingly, through her work, she invited others to be a part of this journey.
She is seen throughout the film carrying a large mic and wearing headphones. “I’ve been walking around with that microphone for probably the last 15 years,” she said, but this time, “we decided to utilize it visually, and also for content in the film, since I was openly trying to find out the story.” In the film, she is a woman with questions, seeking answers. Her microphone is her magnifying glass.
Petra said that she and Michael made a pact that “he would not turn the camera away, or off, or start crying if I get completely disturbed” in response to new information. And, indeed, we see her crying, we see her mom crying, we see her brothers going for a bottle of alcohol. An audience member during the Q&A rightly highlighted Petra’s bravery, as this is a profoundly personal kind of filmmaking.
What I thought would be a purely political film about a communist surveillance state, and a commentary on surveillance in the world today, turned out to be a moving family drama about Petra’s search for the truth concerning her mysterious father. It’s not that it isn’t the former, but her personal journey made the film more captivating for me.
I spoke to a professor of mine who also grew up in Karl-Marx-Stadt and to my surprise, she had some serious criticisms of this film. Her family still lives in the city (now called Chemnitz), and she has visited every year since 1989. She characterized the film as a gloomy, one-sided representation of East Germany, saying it gave the impression that citizens in Karl-Marx-Stadt were generally either too complicit or too afraid to challenge authority, which she stated was simply not the reality. She was actually offended by the portrayal of the citizens, calling them “parodies.” While Stasi surveillance and interference with people’s lives was definitely looming large and comprised one of the reprehensible realities of East German life, it was not the only reality and not as omnipresent and pervasive as the documentary makes it out to be.
My professor also pointed out the directors’ neglect of the period after the Berlin wall came down. Petra’s father committed suicide in 1998. He had worked for Fritz Heckert, a machine tool factory, which consisted of 4,300 employees in 1989. The factory was then taken over by a Western enterprise and, a few years after the wall came down, had fizzled down to 200 employees. A growing depression came over East Germany due to massive unemployment, which lasted throughout the 90’s and beyond. To neglect this depression in assessing the conditions which led to Petra’s father’s suicide seemed irresponsible to my professor.
While I am compelled by my professor’s criticisms of the film, I still think Karl Marx City is a gripping documentary. It’s the way it drew me into the personal story of a daughter and her father, amid all the intrigue of the surveillance state.
I enjoy a good political documentary with conspiracies and corruption, but this one is different; it zones in on a particular human experience, the earnest longing of a daughter to understand her father. The result is a “documentary truth” far more human than the impersonal surveillance footage of everyday life in the GDR.