Sometimes lost in the shuffle in the historical look at totalitarian regimes of the 20th century is the German Democratic Republic (GDR), more commonly known as East Germany. The leaders of the GDR took a page from the Soviets who occupied them and formed one of the most oppressive regimes in modern history complete with their own terrifying secret police, the Stasi. The GDR launched a surveillance state unlike any other with thousands of Stasi agents and informants littered across their side of the Berlin Wall ready to interrogate and intimidate any would-be political opposition. When the regime fell with the Berlin Wall and German was nearing unification, members of the Stasi destroyed incriminating documents and left nothing but a mess of inconclusive documents and the shell of a republic.
Filmmaker Petra Epperlein grew up under the GDR with her parents. In 1999, her father committed suicide. Before taking his own life, her father was sent an anonymous note accusing him of being a member of the Stasi. With so many agents and informants in their network of endless surveillance, it was possible that Petra’s father may have collaborated with this horrible regime. This sets Petra and co-director Michael Tucker on a journey that looks at her own life, her family, her upbringing, as well as all the aspects of this terrible regime in Karl Marx City, a documentary named after the town she grew up in which was later renamed to its original Chemnitz after the fall of the GDR. Karl Marx City is an illuminating documentary, shinning a light not only some of the most personal and intimate details of the life of its filmmaker but on an oppressive regime whose crimes have somewhat fallen through the cracks of history.
Petra Epperlein looks back at her life growing up in the regime and the film employs various surveillance footage and propaganda films from the GDR regime as well as family home videos. She’s obviously shaken at the notion that her father may have collaborated with the Stasi and interviews her mother and former members of the Stasi to better understand if there’s any credence to the possibility. On one level, Karl Marx City is incredibly personal with a filmmaker looking at one of the most painful moments of her life, even going as far as to have an expert analyze the language in her father’s suicide note.
Beyond the personal angle, Epperlein and Tucker look at the history of the Stasi and the GDR. She interviews experts on totalitarianism and travels to the archives where the documents of the Stasi are stored. Millions and millions of documents rest in the archive but trying to piece together information from them is difficult and time consuming as some are coded and there are countless missing links that were probably destroyed. This examination of the GDR dives deeper and deeper into the cold machinations that created an environment of ceaseless paranoia and constant surveillance.
Throughout the entirety of Karl Marx City, Epperlein and Tucker find an undercurrent of hope that comes forth in finding the better nature of man in the face of oppression. There are heartwarming moments buried in the icy exteriors of its locations in the dead of winter. And while I won’t give away how the film concludes, it does end on an upbeat moment that underscores the positive elements that swirl around this examination of a totalitarian state.
Karl Marx City is as much of a personal journey as it is an examination of totalitarian regimes, presenting us with a glimpse as to how people survive under oppressive conditions. It’s said that time heals all wounds but sometimes time is too efficient and allows the wounds of the past to be obscured. Many have forgotten the horrors of the Stasi and the German Democratic Republic, choosing to remember the horrors of the regimes of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Petra Epperlein and Micahel Tucker haven’t forgotten and Karl Marx City is a documentary that reminds us just how close and recent one of the most oppressive regimes was the western world.