How 'Karl Marx City' Speaks to the Surveillance Paranoia of Today

We talk to the filmmakers of the sobering doc about the fears surrounding the Stasi's grip on East Germany, and how the past isn't as far away as it seems.

by Lauren Oyler
Mar 30 2017, 3:43pm

Image courtesy of BOND/360

It's surprising that more people aren't talking about East Germany. The short-lived German Democratic Republic, which was formed out of the Soviet zone of post-World War II occupied Germany in 1949 and dissolved in 1989 amid mass peaceful protests, has a lot to teach people living in a time when paranoia is high and devices can track our every move. Though the parallels between Nazi rule and America's current government are more immediately disturbing, the more modern totalitarianism of the GDR fostered the same kind of insidious fear and distrust that leads us to put tape over our web cameras—or try to identify Trump supporters hiding in plain sight on the subway. According to the new documentary Karl Marx City, which focuses on the everyday impact of the regime, it was "the most surveilled society in history," and they didn't even have Facebook.

But as the film points out, the GDR's secret police—the Ministry for State Security (Stasi)—would've found it "very useful." Directed by Petra Epperlein and her husband Michael Tucker, Karl Marx City is a sad and disturbing account of very recent history that weaves together the personal and political, making a compelling case for understanding what happened in this small country of 17 million people. Epperlein, who grew up in Karl-Marx-Stadt (which was previously and is now again known as Chemnitz), was 23 when the Berlin Wall came down at the end of 1989. We learn, at the beginning of the documentary, that her father committed suicide about ten years later, and the resulting film is an attempt to understand why.

Epperlein's father had attempted suicide once before: in the early 90s, shortly after he received anonymous letters accusing him of being an informant for the Stasi. Following the collapse of the regime, which officially employed roughly 274,000 people between 1950 and 1989 and utilized potentially hundreds of thousands of informal informants, calling someone a Stasi-Mann was "the worst insult" next to calling him a Nazi. (Earlier this year, Berlin's 46-year-old housing secretary Andrej Holm was fired after it was revealed he had worked full-time for the organization as a teenager.) Epperlein's father wrote her a suicide note that read, "Indeed, it would be time to emigrate from Germany forever!" Combined with the earlier accusations, it suggested he might have had a deeper connection to East Germany than she had realized.

Though East Germany is often depicted as a bleak totalitarian state where propaganda reigned and spies lurked around every corner, Karl Marx City is a rare account of the society that emphasizes both the harm done by the government and the willingness of its people to live there. The GDR had a distinct culture and values, and many of its citizens believed in them. Many others did not, but they weren't exactly resisting, either. As Epperlein's mother, who is interviewed despite struggling to open up about life in East Germany, says in the film, "I didn't join the Party because I was a believer. I did not believe in this state. I was just afraid… there would be no opportunities for me, that perhaps I would not be allowed to study or something bad would happen."

"It's hard for people who grew up in a democratic society to imagine, but people are born into dictatorships," Dr. Douglas Selvage, an expert on the Cold War and GDR, says in the film. "Generally the people try to make the best of their life in the given conditions where they live… Not everybody wants or can be a hero… especially if by being a hero you condemn your family to a terrible fate."

This tension between fear and complicity drives many of the questions of Karl Marx City, which aims to challenge our tendency towards good-versus-evil stories and put forth a more ambiguous, difficult narrative. "Most people have a very black-and-white view of the past," Tucker told me over the phone. "There's a little bit of revisionism in it. Everyone had a dissident opinion or everyone somehow supported values of democracy or whatever when you ask them now."

"People have this mythology about themselves that they were all fighting against the system, and then they go into the archive and ask for their files and are surprised if there aren't any files on them," Epperlein added.

That many people retroactively don the cloaks of dissidents and can't believe they weren't considered enemies of the state speaks to the slipperiness of memory, as well as the difficulty of keeping a nuanced perspective on history in one's mind. Luckily (at least in this respect), the Stasi kept meticulous, overwhelming records. The files Epperlein refers to are the massive Stasi archive, which consists of espionage materials collected by the Stasi. Though Stasi officials shredded as many of the files as they could when they knew the end of the republic was approaching, it is still comprised of 41 million index cards divided into about 4,000 subsystems and could stretch for 111 kilometers. (What's more, archive employees have long been working to assemble, like puzzle pieces, the shredded remains.)

After the Wall came down, the archive was opened to anyone who wanted to see their files, an explicit attempt to "understand the mechanisms of dictatorship," as Dagmar Hovestädt, a Stasi Archive spokesperson, says in the film. Karl Marx City treats them as the key to understanding what might have happened to Epperlein's father: If he really did work as an informant, his Stasi file would say.

According to Epperlein, a big impetus for the film was "confronting the generation of my parents with the question, 'How did you just live in that society for such a long time as adults?'" As evidenced by Epperlein's mother, this older generation has a "hard time coming to grips with the idea that they were basically collaborating with the system by not doing anything against it." That it took Epperlein 15 years to decide to dredge up this potential past speaks to how difficult it is for East Germans to examine it, particularly because it didn't feel, in Epperlein's mother's words, "that terrible."

"I'm increasingly outraged when I hear reports… which reduce that country only to oppression and Stasi," she tells her daughter. "The Stasi did exist, we all knew that. But otherwise, it wasn't close enough to us to feel threatening."

Petra Epperlein in front of a bust of Karl Marx outside the former headquarters of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). Image courtesy of BOND/360.

The film demonstrates how close the Stasi actually was, and this disconnect—between wanting to believe things were alright and the reality that they were not at all—is what makes it so unsettling. Inspired by the Stasi's own secret video footage, which often included a "little creepy voiceover" that you can hear in the film, Epperlein and Tucker decided to use voiceover to convey the huge amount of information the documentary contains. The result is often quite poignant: "In their upside-down world," a young woman's voice notes toward the beginning of the film, "the horizon was limited, but the future was sure." Describing the Stasi's secret filming operations, in which the agency trained and dispatched operatives to capture daily life across the country, the woman calls the resulting scenes an "epic of routine in a land that promised that every day would be like the last" and notes how agents could conjure suspicion out of thin air: "Seen through the eyes of the oppressor, every action and gesture take on new meaning."

The voice actress is Epperlein and Tucker's 21-year-old daughter, describing a "society she only knows from stories." At first, her references to Epperlein in the third person felt awkward, but after I learned they were symbolic I saw them in a new light: By having her daughter tell this story, Epperlein passes it on to the next generation, something Epperlein had to fight to do herself. "Most people who were adults during that time, they're old now, and they're just tired," Epperlein told me. "Our generation can stir things up again. That was one of the motivations to make that film, to start talking about it again and not just [say], 'That was the Stasi and these were the bad guys.' [I wanted to] talk about it in these personal terms—how ordinary people were involved in the whole thing."

We learn the truth about Epperlein's father at the end of the film, though it's less conclusive than the sad lessons the family's story imparts about how people behave under totalitarianism. "The Stasi succeeded in undermining trust in society generally, and especially trust in any form of government back then, and I think what's happening here right now is similar," Epperlein told me. "It's happened completely differently, but the trust in government or institutions is being actively undermined. It would be good to look back at a place like East Germany to see what that does to society. Society stops functioning eventually. If there's no trust, nothing can work anymore."

Karl Marx City opens this week at Film Forum.