A still from a Stasi film of Petra Epperlein’s childhood classroom, with her eyes the only ones not blacked out in this image. | BOND/ 360
Karl Marx City” opens with home movies, presumably from co-director Petra Epperlein’s childhood in East Germany. The images show innocent fun, but a voice-over (delivered by a young girl) declares that the movies were shot by the Stasi, the former Soviet satellite’s secret police.
The film, made by Epperlein and her husband Michael Tucker, is a documentary, but it comes close to being a genre film, exploring the mystery behind the suicide of Epperlein’s father, Wolfgang. He killed himself within a few years of the fall of the Berlin Wall, hounded by anonymous letters claiming he was a Stasi agent. He left an odd suicide note for Petra ending with “best regards” and claiming he was killing himself because he couldn’t stand life in Germany anymore.
Epperlein and Tucker start their film by investigating whether it could really be true that her father was a Stasi agent. Although the voice-over, as far as I could tell from the press kit, is delivered (in a half-German, half-American accent) by Epperlein’s daughter, Matilda Tucker, not Epperlein herself, the co-director’s presence dominates the film. “Karl Marx City” could almost be a spiritual sequel — or feminist answer — to Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” in which male angels watch over Berlin a few years before the Wall fell. Epperlein comes across as their female equivalent, although she’s in the former Karl Marx City (now once again known as Chemnitz), where she grew up, not Berlin. Nevertheless, she’s a cosmopolitan flâneur of sorts, always clad in a leather coat, wearing headphones and carrying a huge microphone. These function as visual props, but they’re genuinely necessary: Epperlein recorded sound for the film while Tucker, whose presence is completely invisible, filmed her.
Petra Epperlein investigates the East Germany whose demise her father could not survive
Most of “Karl Marx City” was shot in high-contrast black and white. I think many Americans think this is the only way to do justice to a story about East German spies, as though the directors were adapting a ‘60s John Le Carré novel in documentary form. The beauty of Tucker’s cinematography speaks for itself, but it was also shot to be able to integrate well with archival footage, also filmed in black and white. The Stasi trained their agents to shoot in public with hidden cameras. The film even manages to find a surveillance camera remake of the Lumière brothers’ early cinema landmark “Workers Leaving the Factory.”
In the years after the Wall fell, the former East Germany had a sky-high suicide rate and many other problems. Some areas of the former East Germany are now plagued by far more poverty than the affluent West and an increasing problem with racism and xenophobia. Some writers have compared to the psychological effects of the fall of the Wall and the reunification of Germany with the end of America’s Civil War. While I’m not likening white East Germans to African Americans in any way, they seem to still bear the marks of difference to their Western counterparts, who are richer and more adjusted to capitalism.
East Germany became the world’s largest surveillance state, with huge numbers of Stasi agents infiltrating every aspect of public and private life. (This contributed to the post-Wall suicide spike, with many agents who were exposed in the early ‘90s taking their own lives.) “Karl Marx City” went into production around the time Edward Snowden went public with his revelations about the NSA. Epperlein has expressed her reservations regarding the totalitarian potential of social media, creating a world where the Stasi doesn’t need to exist because people post all kinds of data about themselves on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and elsewhere. Watching the film, I suddenly remembered that I belong to Goodreads and have been supplying anyone who has access to my Facebook feed with a list of all the books I’ve read for the past five years. I like the ability to share this list with my friends and don’t care if Mark Zuckerberg is snooping in; the FBI and NSA are another story.
Famously, William Faulkner said that the past is never really past. Epperlein gets an answer to her questions about her father. Her pain remains raw. And if the former East Germany is freer now, America and the rest of Europe are inheriting some of the problems it once had with surveillance.
KARL MARX CITY | Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker | Bond/ 360 | In English and German with English subtitles | Opens Mar. 29 | Film Forum,209 W. Houston St., btwn. Sixth Ave. & Varick St. | filmforum.org