NYFF Review: ‘Karl Marx City’

Prompted by her father’s mysterious suicide, filmmaker Petra Epperlein, explores the allegations that her father may have been an informant for the Stasi, the infamous state security service of the German Democratic Republic.

Along Epperlein’s journey, we are provided with a look into the city of her childhood, the failed East German surveillance state of Karl Marx City. The film ultimately provides us with an emotionally rewarding narrative set against an intriguing backdrop: the most intensely surveilled society that the world has ever scene.

“Karl Marx City” is a documentary intensely personal in nature, and it accordingly builds to an emotional crescendo. However, Epperlein’s quest to uncover the truth about her father is largely used as a framing device to explore the Stasi’s role in the GDR. It was said in East Germany that if three people got together, one of them was likely informing for the Stasi. There were informants in all major industrial plants, every apartment building, university, and hospital. People were unknowingly recorded, their homes searched, and their privacy invaded, if only to demonstrate the power of the state. All evidence of alleged subversion was carefully collected and meticulously cataloged. The surviving records are housed at the Stasi archives, which contain kilometers of files on millions of people. The film’s look into a totalitarian state without privacy is especially interesting today, in a world where privacy is rapidly disappearing.

The highlight of the film is its visual style. Shot almost entirely in black and white, the stunning cinematography couples with archival footage of surveillance and propaganda to strike a tone that is altogether Orwellian. Epperlein, wielding an oversized boom microphone and looking very much like a dystopian heroine, walks across the seemingly vacant cityscape, through railway stations, past housing blocks, and right up to the city’s forty-ton bust of Karl Marx’s head. “Karl Marx City” is a beautifully rendered film, both aesthetically and in the depiction of its subject material, that any documentary buff would enjoy.

Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival      

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