The German Democratic Republic was the most intensely surveilled society in human history, and yet — as time marches on and the Cold War becomes nothing more than a memory, gray and alien — the fundamental irony of such a perfect spy state grows more striking by the day: By obsessively monitoring their friends and neighbors, the GDR’s secret police were creating a perfect documentary of themselves.
For proof of that fact, look no further than Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s fascinating and necessary “Karl Marx City,” a vaguely Guy Maddin-esque swan-dive into the mysteries of life behind the Berlin Wall and the traumas of surviving it. A remarkable if occasionally unfocused work of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“the process of coming to terms with the past”), this hypnotic autobiography leverages one woman’s fear to exhume the paranoia that once defined an entire country. In its haphazard search for facts, it happens upon a great many truths about how we see each other, and the price we pay for looking too closely.
Today, it’s called Chemnitz, but when Petra Epperlein was born there in 1966, it was called Karl Marx City. Inspired by its namesake’s proletarian creed, the spare and rigid East German metropolis was ground zero for the Stasi and their multitudes of informants, whose surveillance operation was so comprehensive that they surely must have known how ordinary Epperlein was as a young woman, how agreeably complacent she seemed with her separation from the rest of the world. Epperlein didn’t wait around when the Wall fell — her curiosity got the better of her, and she embarked on a global filmmaking career that began when she met (and married) Tucker in New York and led to 2004’s stellar Iraq War doc, “Gunnar Palace” — but she didn’t feel as though she had escaped an evil regime, that she had come of age as an unwitting victim.
Until, that is, the seemingly random day in early 1999 when her father destroyed all of his personal belongings and killed himself. Soon thereafter, Epperlein received a letter in the mail — a suicide note, of sorts — in which her gentle, largely gregarious dad said more about his country than he did about himself, and signed off with a formal “best regards.” It was then that Epperlein’s mother, a low-key hoarder who still lives in her Chemnitz apartment, discovered three typewritten memos suggesting that someone had once threatened to expose her late husband as a Stasi informant. Could it really be true? Could the loving man who used to sing too loudly during family car trips really have been a willing cog in the biggest, most ruthless panopticon ever devised?
Traveling back to her childhood home (which her camera captures in haunted, high-contrast black and white), Epperlein embarks on a mesmeric post-mortem that spends far more time unpacking the Stasi operation than it does attempting to determine if her father played a part in it. While much of “Karl Marx City” tracks behind Epperlein as she follows a scattered trail of breadcrumbs (the filmmaker amusingly outfitted with a pair of headphones and a giant microphone, like a walking parody of the GDR spies who were always listening in), a significant portion of the film is only possible because of all the declassified evidence of their own activities that the Stasi left behind. Swaddled in evocative audio recordings from the GDR era, the documentary is also cut through with oodles of captivatingly mundane surveillance footage.
One illuminating scene finds the monotone narrator (Epperlein and Tucker’s daughter, whose flat cadence and second-person voice recalls the work of Chris Marker) leading us through a shot-by-shot analysis of an incidental street encounter, which seems rich with secrets just because the people involved didn’t know how closely their behavior was being watched. Not even Frederick Wiseman could ever dream of such immaculate vérité filmmaking, and the perfect objectivity of the Stasi footage clashes rather pleasantly with the performative nature of Epperlein’s quest.
That artful collision of cinematic modes also allows “Karl Marx City” to serve as a damning rebuke to “The Lives of Others,” the most famous narrative movie ever made about the Stasi. While it’s hard to argue with the manipulative dramatic kick of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s stirringly sentimental 2006 Oscar winner, Epperlein speaks to a historian who insists that the film’s story is absurd, as the surveillance state was too complete to spur someone’s moral awakening; there was no good to be found inside the bad. On the contrary, Epperlein’s experience suggests that, for most civilians who lived in the GDR (and certainly those who were born there), it was simply all they knew. Nobody bothered to tell them that privacy is a right, and not a luxury, and so they learned to live without it, fearing their neighbors and doubting themselves.
“Karl Marx City” only stumbles when it overtly tries to connect the GDR to the modern world; the movie is far more lucid when using the present as a lens through which to see the past than it is when using the past as a lens through which to see the present (or envision our dystopian future). Shot in the immediate wake of Edward Snowden’s exile, Epperlein and Tucker’s doc is overeager to comment on the next evolution of surveillance states (“I’m sure the Stasi would have found Facebook very useful,” a talking head opines). And while it’s mind-boggling to imagine all the ways in which the GDR augured an age in which consumer technology turns everyone into unwitting spores of intimate data, this penetratingly personal film is at its best when focusing on how surveillance makes us doubt each other, and not on how it exposes ourselves.
But if this labored reach for relevance prevents the film from fully articulating the uneasy dynamic that exists between reunified Germany’s older generations, whose memories are longer than they’d care to admit, it’s still filled with poetic flourishes that affirm the urgency of Epperlein’s search, and restore the weight of history. As the narrator is quick to observe, an enormous statue of Marx’s head still stares at the people of Chemnitz, the sole remaining relic of an old word order. They tried to remove it, but the monument was simply too heavy to lift.
“Karl Marx City” opens in theaters on Wednesday, March 29.