Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, the citizens of Karl Marx City voted overwhelmingly to rechristen their home Chemnitz, the name it had before becoming part of East Germany nearly four decades earlier. Though the industrial hub succeeded in scrubbing nearly every remnant of its communist appellation, one remained: a 40-ton bronze monument of Marx’s head, presiding grimly over its inner city forever. No writer would dare invent such a brazen metaphor, but history has given “Karl Marx City” — a chilling documentary about the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police — the perfect icon for a legacy of oppression. In exploring the mystery of her father’s suicide in 1999, Petra Epperlein returns to her roots in Chemnitz and uncovers meaningful links between his story and the stories of many under Stasi watch. At a time when Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures are suggesting a digital surveillance state, “Karl Marx City” makes for a particularly resonant warning from the not-so-distant past.
To help set the context for the Stasi omnipresence in the GDR, Epperlein and co-director Michael Tucker turn to the German thriller “The Lives of Others,” which won an Oscar for its moody portrait of a Stasi officer who begins to feel sympathetic toward the couple he’s surveilling. One of the talking heads in “Karl Marx City” served as a consultant on the film, but recalls a dispute with the director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, over the lead character. Von Donnersmarck likened the spy to Oskar Schindler in “Schindler’s List,” but the consultant countered that Schindler was a real person and that, in his experience, the notion of a Stasi officer intervening to help his targets was too far-fetched. The system, which enforced loyalty through fear and paranoia, made it impossible.
The reunification of Germany may have ended Stasi rule, but Epperlein and her family, like many in the former GDR, have not entirely escaped from its Orwellian spell. After the fall of communism, Epperlein emigrated to the United States, but her parents stayed in Chemnitz, left to deal with a painful reckoning over the past. Epperlein received a cryptic note from her father shortly before he hung himself in the family garden, but there was nothing in the letter to explain why the man she remembered for his warmth and happiness could have been driven to such despair. His relationship to the Stasi poses some haunting questions: Was he an informant or a target? And what happened that might have led him to such a dark place?
Armed with headphones and a boom mic, Epperlein strikes out to seek answers, but “Karl Marx City” doesn’t have a whiff of the narcissism that plagues so many first-person documentaries. In lesser hands, the personal aspect of the film could come off as contrived, but it’s really more of the organizing principle for a much larger study of the “mechanism of dictatorship.” For Epperlein and Tucker, this is familiar territory: Their breakthrough doc, “Gunner Palace,” took up residence at Uday Hussein’s abandoned mansion in order to take stock of Iraq after his father’s tyrannical rule. “Karl Marx City” similarly observes that the end of dictatorship doesn’t banish the uncertainty or instability that follows, especially for people who have known no other system.
If Epperlein and Tucker struggle at times to articulate the oppressive methods of the Stasi, it might be because the agency’s purpose was diabolically nebulous — more about fomenting suspicion in the GDR than weeding out subversives. To demonstrate the power the state held over people’s lives, for example, Stasi officers would spread rumors about them or rearrange the furniture in their house. “Through the eyes of the oppressor,” one talking head notes, “everyone is a suspect. Everyone is the enemy.”
For Epperlein, coming to terms with her father’s suicide means coming to terms with a national mindset, which broadens the film’s appeal significantly. A visit to the Stasi Records Agency in Berlin, where she requests the files that eventually give her and her family the answers they seek, is a potent lesson in how sunlight is the best disinfectant. Epperlein offers “Karl Marx City” as her own act of painful transparency, an essential warning about what happens to societies when ordinary citizens are being watched.