Listening for the Past

By Tim Winterstein

At one point in the documentary Karl Marx City (streaming on Netflix), the narrator (Matilda Tucker) translates two German words for dealing with memories. The first is Erinnerungskultur, or the “culture of remembrance,” and the second is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “the process of coming to terms with the past.” These are fitting terms for a country that seems to have more than its share of recent past with which to come to terms. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to watch this film so soon after seeing Hitler’s Children (which I wrote about here).

But Karl Marx City shows a more recent history, with more of the principals still around, as well as a history that doesn’t seem to have been ignored or denied as vehemently as the Nazi history. This is a well-preserved and documented history, though it is being preserved piece by painstaking piece as researchers try to fit together thousands of shredded documents and photographs.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a perfect documentary. Petra Epperlein has constructed a beautiful, informative, and personal story that connects integrally with the history of the GDR (DDR) and the Stasi. The very personal, family story that Epperlein is tracing for her own sake expands and contracts, widens and narrows, into a national and world-historical story. The movement between her own story and the broader story is seamless. Nothing of the contextual footage from the experts she consults is artificial to the film.

And it’s a beautiful film. Though it’s mostly in black-and-white, the lack of color adds rather than detracts from the story. It’s artistic rather than noirish (nothing wrong with that, if you’re into it. I’m not.). The crisp blacks and whites of the current footage contrast nicely with the shadowy grays of the Stasi footage. And I want to watch the end credits over and over.

Although I was put off at first by Petra carrying around a recording microphone in most shots, it becomes an over-arching metaphor for her search: What voices of the past will she be able to discover, and will they tell her any more than she already knows? Can she hear her father’s voice across the years, and will that voice vindicate or indict the character of the man she thought she knew? Has, as she says, her past simply become “history,” or will it keep surfacing in unexpected ways and places?

Udo Grashoff, one of Petra’s experts (on—somewhat morbidly—suicide, especially among former Stasi officials), sums up her search when he says that we are all contradictions. The history is contradictory. You have to doubt everything in the beginning. This is as true of Petra’s search for answers about her father’s suicide as it is of the 40-year existence of the German Democratic Republic.

This is the true story of The Lives of Others, and it’s more appalling than I knew. The archives of the GDR contain 40 million index cards on the Stasi files. It was the goal of the Stasi to know what everyone was doing at all times, and according to the film, it was the most surveilled state in history, no doubt enabled in part by technology that hadn’t existed for prior regimes. (For a recent short film that delves into the all-seeing panopticon of East German agents, look for the excellent The Peculiar Abilities of Mr. Mahler.)

I found the training videos of Stasi agents to be especially fascinating. The goal was to know “who is whom,” and to know, before it happened, who the would-be enemies of the state were. The cliché (and, apparently, not an untrue one) was that if there were three people sitting together, one of them was a Stasi informer. This leads directly to the surprising climax of Petra’s search for the truth about her father.

Karl Marx City is a documentary that will stick with you, not only for its story, but for its beauty and emotion.