In East Germany during the Cold War before the wall came down, the Ministry of State Security known as Stasi, had a wide network of citizens spying on one another and reporting on family, friends and neighbors, with an estimated total of 500,000 informants in addition to the 92,000 official staff members. After the wall was breached and the country was unified, files were increasingly exposed and the betrayals revealed were sometimes shocking.
"Karl Marx City," directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker and shown at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, explores a very personal story against this background. Epperlein, born in Karl Marx City, now called Chemnitz, has been puzzled over why her father committed suicide without leaving an explanation, only a cryptic note. She undertakes on camera to explore a nagging question: could her father possibly have been secretly working for Stasi?
We follow her dramatic inquiry, a formidable task, as Stasi has investigated more than 17 million people. Integrated into the film are clips from those terrible times, a visit to a Stasi prison, recordings made, examples of propaganda films aimed at the populace and assorted interviews.
What will Epperlein discover about her father? The personal stake is high, but Epperlein keeps the cool of an investigator as she pursues her goal.
The film, of course, becomes timely for American audiences, in light of the revelation of how much spying through technical ways ensnares our emails and phone calls, and the resulting storm that has been unleashed.
It also holds personal interest for me. When the Freedom of Information Act was passed I obtained an FBI file of some 300 pages reporting on investigating me for purely political activities during my youth. Some of the material was laughable even though the practice was so obnoxious. The Stasi investigation depicted reminds me of a portion of my file that said a New York Westside couple, whose names were blacked out, had reported my attendance at a left-wing fund-raising party. Who was that couple? I never knew, but decided not to ponder the identity and thereby cast aspersions on friends. That is merely an isolated example of the power to spy on people’s lives for political purposes, a practice against which we in a democracy must guard. “Karl Marx City” effectively takes us into the utter nightmare of what can happen under a totalitarian government gone haywire with individual rights not respected and fear spread so that nobody could be trusted. A Bond/360 release. Reviewed September 29, 2016 from Toronto. Posted March 29, 2017.