Describing an eighty nine minute film as a four-hour experience sounds like a pretty unflattering endorsement. On paper, that film probably sounds positively grueling. We expect the movies to sweep us up and make us forget about petty constrictions like running time; sitting in a theater minding the clock and not the screen is a less desirable sensation than thumbscrews. So Petra Epperlein’s new film, “Karl Marx City,” a personal work that blends the personal with the historical, may not be an easy sell at first blush, being both brief in length and ample in scope. Epperlein packs each passing moment, each frame she captures, with sobriety, plus a seminar’s worth of information about Stasi-era East Germany. Seconds don’t tick by. They sweat.
But that’s what makes “Karl Marx City” so damn good. Epperlein doesn’t go over our heads. She condenses the span of the German Democratic Republic’s forty year existence into digestible art, though that’s not to say the film isn’t a tough pill to swallow; she then marries her family’s story, couched within her father’s 1999 suicide, to that period, allowing her to educate her audience on how the Stasi operated while keeping the impact of its operations on intimate terms. There may not be a praise word in the critics’ language as unsexy as “efficient,” but “Karl Marx City” is exactly that, lean, smart, quick, well-made, and unsparing, a documentary that wastes nothing and manages to say everything it wants to say in the most articulate way possible. Epperlein’s filmmaking isn’t flashy, but muted economy is a better fit for her style.
“Karl Marx City” is about Germany first and Epperlein a close second. The title invokes her birthplace, Chemnitz, the erstwhile administrative seat of the Karl-Marx-Stadt district during East Germany’s tenure of sovereignty; Epperlein’s narrator, Matilda Tucker, tells us that Marx never actually visited Chemnitz, but the city wound up taking his name and housing his image all the same. (No comment is made as to how Marx might might have reacted to an industrial locus adopting him as its avatar, but feel free to fill in the blanks on that one yourself.) That the head of the Karl Marx Monument, commissioned by the East German government in 1953, still sits in Chemnitz is a happy thematic accident for Epperlein: Its permanence reminds us that that the past can never be fully erased, whether you’re a bronze idol or a man accused of being Stasi.
So it was with Epperlein’s dad. “Karl Marx City” is her attempt at finding out the truth behind the accusation. Who could blame her? Who can stomach the thought that their dearly departed sire lived a double life, especially if that double life involved doing terrible things to innocent people? The bitter irony, of course, is that Epperlein’s inquiry proves the efficacy of Stasi tactics even decades after its dissolution in 1990; the very idea that her father could have been a Stasi agent drives an immediate wedge between her and her memories of him. Sowing paranoia through state-sponsored mass surveillance was the Stasi’s bread and butter alongside the fine art of zersetzung, a method of psychological control by way of social undermining. To be a citizen in East Germany was to be suspicious by force of habit. Anyone could be Stasi. Anyone could be watching you. You didn’t know who, or how. You just knew to look over your shoulder, and you knew that looking over your shoulder was, in the end, a meaningless gesture.
There’s a reason that the Stasi kept such a tight stranglehold on East Germany for so long, and “Karl Marx City” proves it out. Epperlein interviews professors and doctors, her twin brothers and her mother, a former Stasi agent (named only in the film’s credits), and representatives from the Stasi Archive, which contains over one hundred kilometers of surveillance material gathered by Stasi informants and officers; she goes to lengths and then some in the pursuit of an answer to the question of her dad’s complicity in Stasi affairs, and we’re kept on tenterhooks all the while. There is an answer to that question, but as Epperlein digs deeper and deeper, the film expands beyond its driving mystery. “Karl Marx City” is about Epperlein’s search for closure, but it’s also about the banality of if not evil, then at least tyranny.
“I didn’t join the party because I was a believer,” her mother tells her. “I did not believe in this State. I was just afraid. I was afraid that if I wouldn’t join, there would be no opportunities for me, that perhaps I would not be allowed to study or something bad would happen.” Such is life growing up in a dictatorship: Choice is limited if it’s available at all, and a choice between what’s right and the safety of your loved ones isn’t much of a choice at all. How do you fight the system when you’re hopelessly trapped in it? Do you fight it at all, or do you keep your head down? Mrs. Epperlein’s words invite us to watch “Karl Marx City” in the spirit of empathy for an upbringing many of us can’t imagine enduring, and to accept the murkier depths it plumbs as human.
Maybe more striking than the film’s revelations and conclusions is its sense of craft. Epperlein and her longtime co-director-cum-cinematographer, Michael Tucker, capture “Karl Marx City” almost entirely in black and white, combining their own materials with Stasi surveillance footage, declassified and at their disposal as an investigative tool; the stark tones, coupled with the duo’s sharp eye for composition, clash with the film’s core ambiguities, layering aesthetic complexity to the complexity of its subject matter. The monochrome beauty enhances the unsettled atmosphere of “Karl Marx City” as Epperlein’s pacing expands the scale of her quest. It’s a remarkable picture of inbound focus and outbound ambitions. [B+]