That so much of the archival footage from Karl Marx City is banal only makes it more troubling. The material comes from the surveillance records of the Stasi, the East German secret police that conducted extensive domestic surveillance during the Cold War era to weed out the disloyal. As such, the copious video of public spaces—buildings, streets, parks—speaks to the totality of the state’s monitoring of citizens, so extreme that all of those areas aren’t simply documented, but covered from every conceivable angle, allowing directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker to piece together continuity editing of 30-year-old footage. As Epperlein grimly notes at one point, the high level of coverage used to spy on unaware citizens walking around the city produces perhaps the closest thing to documentary truth, a complete record of lives unperturbed by knowledge of the cameras.
But, of course, the citizens of Chemnitz, formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt under the Iron Curtain, knew fully well 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 following the fall of the Berlin Wall to the long-term drop in birthrate, rated as the lowest in the world in 2006. This aspect of the city’s frayed social fabric finds a personal outlet in Epperlein, who was born in Chemnitz and has returned after an adulthood abroad primarily to determine whether her father, who committed suicide in 1999, was a Stasi collaborator. Epperlein’s very personal preoccupations could have overwhelmed Karl Marx City’s broader focus, but instead they provide the documentary with a necessary anchor point.
The Epperlein family’s struggle to sort through buried trauma and lingering internal suspicions about their patriarch’s past personalizes the culture of fear that will never fully leave those who lived under it. The co-director’s personal ties to the subject matter also makes possible an extended dive into the colossal Stasi archive in Berlin, a warehouse so vast it recalls the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Amid the 11 kilometers of documents are files so invasively crafted that modern curators rigorously screen everyone prior to allowing access to materials to ensure that no one can see the files on anyone but themselves and close family.
Karl Marx City’s dominant image, of Epperlein roaming Chemnitz wearing giant headphones and wielding a boom mic larger than her head, comes to resemble a compensation for the city’s legacy of clandestine surveillance, answering the Stasi’s secrecy with transparency. This is as much for her own sake as her subjects’, countering decades spent running from the potentially unpleasant truth of her father’s complicity in the state apparatus with a direct, public quest for answers. The climactic revelation of the father’s file gains its biggest impact in the reaction of his family reading it, eliciting the layers of horror and revulsion wrought by living so long under the weight of rumor and insinuation. In their catharsis lies the closest thing to healing that one can glean from such a brutal legacy.
The New York Film Festival runs from September 30–October 16.