L.P. Hartley’s famous proverb, “The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there” is literalized in Karl Marx City, a noir-inflected autobiographical essay film about growing up in East Germany — a nation that dissolved, along with its sinister state security apparatus, the Stasi, in 1990. Filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker (spouses and collaborators best known for 2004’s Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace) raise intriguing ideas about memory and surveillance. Citizens of the German Democratic Republic were the most spied-upon in all of history; who knows how much longer this ignominious record will stand? But, as too often happens in nonfiction movies, their exploration of these concepts is undermined by ill-considered execution.
Epperlein is not only the co-director of Karl Marx City but also its subject and, in one of the documentary’s more wearying conceits, its tour guide. Her father’s suicide, in early 1999, prompts the filmmakers’ return 15 years later to her hometown — the place name of the title, which, after German reunification, reverted to Chemnitz, its original appellation. She sets out to solve a mystery: Did vater end his life because he was about to be outed as a one-time Stasi agent or informant? Outfitted with a black leather jacket and headphones and holding an enormous shotgun mic with a furry windbuster, Epperlein roams deserted Chemnitz streets and the halls of the Stasi Archives, an investigator determined to come to terms with an era dominated by invisible, pervasive, diabolical sleuthing. Initially the sight of Epperlein kitted out in technician’s gear, ever alert to signs and signals, carries a suitable gravity — seriousness that, owing to repetition, comes dangerously close to kitsch (not unlike the noble/hokey benediction gesture in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, in which various West Berliners, their shoulders grasped by seraphic hands, are touched by angels).
There’s also discordance between first and third person in Karl Marx City. The off-screen narrator (Matilda Tucker, the filmmakers’ daughter) consistently refers to Epperlein using the latter: “She’s left with more questions than answers,” goes one typical passage, aiming for profundity but landing on the obvious. Likewise, a disjunction marks the way Epperlein positions herself: When she is not stoically, sternly recording and interviewing, she is revealing a more unvarnished self, but to whom is never made clear. These episodes have the unintended effect of making her rawest, most vulnerable moments seem disingenuous and contrived. And of the half-dozen or so experts consulted on screen, two specialize in illumination of the dimmest wattage, such as the Cold War historian who declares, “I have no idea how the Stasi would have dealt with Facebook. I’m sure they would have found it very useful.”
The frequent structural misjudgments are frustrating because they distract from engaging lines of inquiry. Woven throughout Karl Marx City is declassified Stasi surveillance footage — what the filmmakers piquantly call in the press notes the “B-roll of a dictatorship” — archival material that gives the documentary ballast. One bit of Stasi footage shows the entrance and exit of every employee at a factory, a segment that forms a queasy twinship with the very first actualité ever made: Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). The Stasi were “exceptional cameramen,” per the voice-over, recording the most mundane interactions to be used as proof of treasonous offenses. In its better moments, Karl Marx City provocatively suggests that the secret police wielding hidden cameras are the craftsmen of documentary filmmaking’s darkest side.
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