A beautiful, aching treatment of how the past invades the present and shapes identity.
Karl Marx City is a playful yet emotional exploration of the processes of history and memory. It is a meta-text: its own making is one of its central subjects. While deconstructing itself, the film also engages in discussions related to the creation of knowledge, public memorialization, private remembrance, surveillance and reconciliation in societies with troubled pasts. That Karl Marx City remains funny and entertaining while making poignant contributions to its morally and philosophically complex subject matter is a testament to how well-crafted it is as a documentary.
The film is nominally about co-writer/co-director Petra Epperlein and her father’s sudden suicide in 1999. The Epperlein family lived in Chemnitz, Germany, which was in the eastern/Soviet-occupied portion of the country—the GDR. During the years of Soviet-satellite governance, Chemnitz was re-christened Karl Marx City, lending the film its catchy title. Petra left Germany following the GDR’s collapse and settled in the US, but her brothers and parents remained. The central narrative line to which Karl Marx City loosely adheres involves Petra’s father and his possible affiliation with the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) during the GDR years. Petra sets out to discover whether or not her father was in fact an informant for the Communist regime.
To resolve this puzzle, Karl Marx City explains the Stasi, the GDR political system, the normalization of political surveillance and the unique societal response of the newly-reunified Germany to the history of Stasi activities. The film takes its time in doing this. This is not a didactic documentary primarily focused on giving viewers information that they did not have prior to watching. The talking heads are kept to a minimum, and their contributions are more concerned with contextualization or broad-based discussion than plain reportage of facts. The film assumes the viewer is informed already.
The result of this style is that the documentary illuminates what it is like to live under a political regime which suppresses speech and thought. The film demonstrates the everyday nature and casual acceptance of omnipresent searches and monitoring and the way this degrades human dignity. It deals with the transition to a Western-style parliamentary democracy and truly historicizes both remembering and forgetting by GDR residents. It explains how and why events become part of personal memory or not, as well as which ones are instead commemorated in public form. In this vein, the film describes the enormous government efforts to salvage and broadcast the records of the Stasi. It also ponders why such work is or is not essential to the functioning of German society in the post-Berlin Wall age.
But as much as it is an investigation into the GDR’s history of surveillance, Karl Marx City is a postmodern film about film-making, recording and the human condition. The film is self-aware, and the viewer often sees Petra performing as the film’s sound engineer, carrying a microphone through silent archival holdings or the brutalist-architecture-lined streets of Chemnitz. It is an allegory to the hidden filming and recording of Stasi agents the film is exposing. The subjects of Karl Marx City documented “reality” in secret to create truth; Karl Marx City therefore documents “reality” with full transparency about the process as a way to posit a counter-truth. It unearths a deep well of humor within this parallel structure, granting levity and laughs to a film that otherwise traces such serious topics as suicide and dictatorship.
The result is a deeply human and humane reconciliation between history-as-lived/remembered and history-as-recorded. Petra learns the truth of her father’s political activities and his interactions with the Stasi. She also unearths truths about herself, both facts about past events which she had forgotten as well as truths about who she is as a person in the here and now.
Karl Marx City is, in the final accounting, a beautiful, aching treatment of how the past invades the present and shapes identity. With a smile and consistent humor, it illuminates something undeniably compelling about the most ineffable features of what it means to be a person living in the world with others.