REVIEW: ‘Karl Marx City’ finds German filmmaker doubting her father’s role in GDR

Petra Epperlein is pictured in the fifth grade at Valentina Tereshkova School, Karl Marx City, 1977. The photograph is part of the new documentary Karl Marx City, directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker. Photo courtesy of BOND/360.

Karl Marx City is one of the most emotionally impactful and politically stirring films of 2017. The documentary, which is currently playing New York City’s Film Forum, follows director Petra Epperlein as she seeks to find answers about why her father killed himself and whether he was an informant during the time of East Germany, also known as the GDR or German Democratic Republic.

Along with co-director Michael Tucker, Epperlein travels down some difficult pathways to unearth the truths behind the culture of secrets that pervaded the GDR in the 1980s and early 1990s. In particular, she looks into the role of the Stasi, the state police, and whether her father gave them secrets on his friends.

The suicide of the director’s father leaves the family with so many questions and so much hurt. They don’t understand how he could make such a decision, and this drives them to head down the painful memory lane to an historic era in which neighbors would inform on the politics of fellow neighbors. The events of this time period in East Germany have been well documented and even fictionalized in The Lives of Others, but Epperlein places a much more personal and anecdotal lens on the material.

Interestingly, the co-directors, who also serve as co-writers and co-producers, decide to film Epperlein in her quest for more information. Not only is she seen on screen asking her interview subjects questions, but she’s also seen holding up a large microphone to capture sound from her hometown, which was known as Karl Marx City before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This image of the director receiving sound through the microphone serves many purposes, one of which is that it reminds viewers of exactly how the GDR and Stasi operated. Everyone was seemingly suspect. Everyone was a possible informant. Everything was being recorded. At least that was the perception by some people, and the facts in the film certainly prove a society on edge over who was on the inside and who was on the outside. Apparently one out of every three citizens spied on someone else, which means there was a good chance someone was either informing or being informed upon.

Epperlein’s presence, with her trusty microphone, also humanizes the story beyond the headlines and images of surveillance from the time period in question. There are scenes in the film in which Epperlein and her mother and brothers deal with the suspicion of their father and husband, and the pain of their doubts and the uncertainty of his role weigh heavy upon them. There is more than one occasion when they break down under the magnitude of their quest and have to consider the enormity of the historical era in question.

Karl Marx City serves many purposes. The film is a family drama that displays the soul searching of inquiring family members, and it also details the incredibly invasive role that informants played in the building up and eventual breaking down of social mores.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Karl Marx City (2017), written and directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, is currently playing New York City’s Film Forum. The film, running 89 minutes, is presented in English and German with English subtitles. Click here for more information. Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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