'Karl Marx City': Film Review | TIFF 2016

A compelling family mystery wrapped in Cold War history.

East German-born director Petra Epperlein investigates her father's secret life and tragic death in this Toronto world premiere.

Dozens of documentaries have been made about the repressive Communist regimes of the former Eastern bloc, but few have been as visually striking or as deeply personal as Karl Marx City. Directed by the married couple Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, this visually striking TIFF premiere is part espionage thriller, part family memoir, and part timely warning about the dangers of state surveillance. It even features real archive spy footage shot by the Stasi, East Germany's notorious secret police.

With added topical bite in a post-Snowden world, this unorthodox Cold War mystery story is guaranteed further festival bookings, starting with New York in late September. Beyond the fest circuit, its timeless themes and stylish packaging could translate into specialist slots on big and small screen.

Once upon a time in the East, the drab industrial town of Chemnitz was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt ("Karl Marx City") under the old GDR regime. Epperlein grew up in Chemnitz, but emigrated to America after the fall of Communism. Her parents stayed behind in a newly reunited nation full of shame and secrets, which eventually became too much of a burden for Epperlein's father. In 1999, he mailed her a cryptic farewell note, burned all his photos and letters, then hanged himself from a tree behind the old family home. He was 57.

Karl Marx City is a personal investigation into a family tragedy, but also into the old Communist regime, and the murky connections between them. Soon after the GDR collapsed, Epperlein's father received a series of anonymous letters that appeared to accuse him of being an  undercover Stasi informant. Dismissed by the family at the time, the letters have since assumed totemic importance for the director as she struggles to make sense of the still-obscure motives behind her father's death.

Epperlein's bittersweet journey back in time features interviews with her mother and twin brothers, plus visits to the Stasi archives in Berlin and Chemnitz. She meets historians, scholars and experts on suicide. She also reconnects with her former best friend from school, now a tree-hugging hippie whose elderly father is a rare example of a retired Stasi agent who is happy to talk openly on camera about the dirty deeds he once gladly undertook to protect the workers' paradise from its own workers.

The Orwellian scale of the Stasi's surveillance operation is still staggering, involving more than 90,000 official agents and at least 200,000 secret informants. Assembled in a pre-computer age, the archive of police files on former East German citizens currently contains 41 million index cards filling around 70 miles of shelving. None of this historical material is especially revelatory, though Karl Marx City does contain a few striking details, including that the GDR regime "sold" thousand of jailed dissidents to the West in return for much-needed hard currency.

Epperlein's quest is a partial success, exposing the truth behind her father's Stasi links (no spoilers here) and the author of the anonymous letters. But as with most suicide cases, darker questions remain unresolved. The filmmakers are careful not to demonize everyone duped by the failed utopian promise of Communism, and delve into the recent phenomenon of rose-tinted "Ostalgia" for the former Eastern Bloc. But they also methodically debunk the 2006 German Oscar-winner The Lives of Others for its false portrayal of a sensitive, humane Stasi officer. Parallels with our post-Wikileaks surveillance culture are sparingly drawn, but revealing: "I'm sure the Stasi would have found Facebook very useful."

A key joy of Karl Marx City is its strong, arty aesthetic. Epperlein and Tucker shoot in luminous monochrome with red captions, mirroring the stark look of the Stasi spy footage they weave into the story, which manages to appear both mundane and menacing.  Their daughter Matilda provides the third-person voiceover, accentuating the film's family themes and dark fairytale elements. Music and sound design add to the dramatic effect, with retro-kitsch songs from the Communist era punctuated by ominously tolling bells and muffled snatched of furtive conversation from old surveillance tapes. The banality of evil in action.

Production company: Pepper & Bones
Cast: Petra Epperlein, Christa Epperlein, Uwe Epperlein, Volker Epperlein, Udo Grashoff, Hubertus Knabe, Douglas Selvage
Directors-screenwriters-producers-editors: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker
Cinematographer: Michael Tucker
Executive producer: Dana O'Keefe
Music: Alexander Kliment
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Sales company: Cinetic Media

89 minutes