“Karl Marx City”
Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker are the directors of this “Karl Marx City” is a new documentary about the hard-hitting documentary about the suicide of a father, who hanged himself from a tree behind the family home in Chemnitz in 1999. It is co-directed by the daughter of the man, Petra Epperlein, and Michael Tucker. Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, the citizens of this town that was then called Karl Marx City, voted to change the town’s name that had been given it under the auspices of the German Democratic Republic.
Epperlein decided to investigate the circumstances of her father’s death and whether he was an informant for the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. As she interviewed her mother, twin brothers, and other survivors of the oppressive methods of the Stasi, she uncovered many insights into the human capacity for betrayal of others and the intrusive nature of surveillance. She also spoke with historians, scholars, and experts on this period of Communist totalitarian persecution.
The Stasi created loyalty through fear and paranoia as it trod on the rights of its own citizens and this involved more than 90,000 official agents and at least 200,000 secret informants. The archive created by the Stasi contains 41 million index cards kept on 70 miles of shelving. In this terrible atmosphere, we learn that “Everyone is a suspect. Everyone is the enemy.” Epperlein began to wonder whether or not her father might have taken his own life after realizing his mistake of working as a Stasi agent.
This documentary dares to show the truth about the dangers of round-the-clock surveillance and the harrowing fallout from the systematic making of enemies. It is also a cautionary account of the dangers that follow when hostility against others is used as a justification for secrecy, suspicion, and the suppression of dissent.
Unfortunately much of the archival footage is banal. It comes from the surveillance records of the Stasi, the East German secret police that conducted extensive domestic surveillance during the Cold War era to get rid the disloyal. The video of public spaces shows the totality of the state’s monitoring of citizens. The extensive level of coverage used to spy on unaware citizens walking around the city is a complete record of lives unperturbed by knowledge of the cameras.
The citizens of Chemnitz (formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt under the Iron Curtain), knew that they were being watched, and the paranoia of the age was so pervasive that it effectively ruined the city well past the collapse of communism, from the mass exodus of people following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the long-term drop in birthrate. Epperlein, who was born in Chemnitz, returned after living abroad in order to determine whether her father, who committed suicide in 1999, was a Stasi collaborator. Epperlein’s very personal preoccupations give the documentary its anchor point.
The Epperlein family struggled to go through buried trauma and lingering internal suspicions about the family patriarch’s past and this gives us a very personal look at the culture of fear that will never really leave those who lived under it. Epperlein’s personal ties to the subject matter allows for an extended look into the Stasi archive in Berlin where eleven kilometers of documents are files are housed and where curators screen everyone prior to allowing access to materials to ensure that no one can see the files on anyone but themselves and close family. The dominant image of the documentary is of Epperlein roaming Chemnitz wearing giant headphones and with a boom mike larger than her head. She comes to resemble a compensation for the city’s legacy of clandestine surveillance. She has spent decades running from the potential truth that her father was complicity in the state apparatus with a direct, public quest for answers. The climactic revelation of the father’s file has its biggest impact in the reaction of his family reading it bringing to the surface the layers of horror and revulsion caused by living so long under the weight of rumor and insinuation. Their catharsis is the closest thing to healing that we can get from such a brutal legacy.