As citizens in several parts of the world (among them, Italy, Sweden, and the United States) toy with the idea of authoritarianism as a way to bring order and stability to the frequent messiness of democracy, it’s instructive to take stock of what an authoritarian regime actually looks like in practice. In my estimation, viewing the 2016 documentary Karl Marx City is a good place to start.
The married team of Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker return to Epperlein’s hometown in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) to investigate the possibility that her father, a suicide at the age of 57, might have been an informer for East Germany’s notorious Ministry of State Security, or Stasi, whose vast network of agents, informants, and enforcers is considered to be “one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies to have ever existed.” If the rumor about her father proved to be true, it would have been a devastating betrayal of everything Epperlein ever believed about him, though it might explain his seemingly senseless suicide.
To uncover the truth, Epperlein asks to see his file, one of many thousands of dossiers the Stasi kept on the GDR’s residents. After the fall of communism, East Germans rushed to view their files; it even became something of a status symbol to have one. But Epperlein’s mother resisted the temptation, afraid of what she might find.
Accessing the file is more involved than it might seem. The Stasi had a complicated system of cross-referencing their reports, and the current German government is meticulous about protecting the privacy of those the Stasi observed. It takes some time before Epperlein gets answers to her questions.
As she waits, Epperlein roams the streets of her former home town, known as Karl Marx City under communism, but now sporting its historical name of Chemnitz. She points out the place where the house on which her parents lavished so much attention used to stand, wondering if the oak tree where her father hanged himself might still be there. She consults with an expert on suicide about the cryptic letter her father sent her shortly before his death. She finds her former best friend and speaks with her friend’s father, who is unusually open about his work as a Stasi agent.
The Stasi, he tells us, used to break into homes to search through people’s belongings. They took photos of each part of the apartment, not just to have the information, but to ensure that everything was put back exactly as it was. Sometimes the agents would alter the interior landscape intentionally just to let the surveilled people know they were being watched and that they could be gotten to at any time. Contrary to the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others (2006), from which Epperlein and Tucker excerpt, he says that nobody he knew in the Stasi had a guilty conscience about what they were doing or worked to help any of the subjects they were spying upon.
The surveillance state was all-pervasive. We see films of young children in their classroom, people going in and out of work day after day, ordinary street traffic. Epperlein speculates on the tedium of a job that required workers to record even the most routine and innocent activities. We learn that in Karl Marx City alone, there were 3,500 full-time Stasi agents and 12,000 informants mainly recruited among people close to their targets merely for the price of things that would make their lives a little easier. Interestingly, we also learn that the GDR “sold” 35,000 prisoners to West Germany over the years for a total of 3 billion Deutschmarks.
Aside from some color photos and a home movie snippet from Epperlein’s personal archive, the entire film is shot in black and white, which is how I’ve heard life in the Eastern Bloc described—drab, colorless. In addition, Epperlein spends almost the entire film wearing headphones and carrying around a large microphone, even in empty buildings and deserted streets, perhaps as a metaphor for the ever-present ears of the state under which she was raised. Her and Tucker’s daughter Matilda provides some voiceover narration, and Epperlein interviews her mother and twin brothers over the course of the film, truly making Karl Marx City the story of a family that knows the meaning of oppression.