Genre: Documentary / East Germany
Synopsis: Documentarian Petra Epperlein turns the camera lens on her family and attempts to find the truth behind her father’s suicide after the fall of East Germany.
Special Features: n/a
About halfway through the latest documentary by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker (Gunner Palace), an historian of the GDR (the former East German Communist state) describes the world in which he and other colleagues grew up as an exceptionally complex place where its citizens became the world’s most highly scrutinized population in human history.
The GDR built itself up from the ruins of WWII with Soviet influence, and a churning sense of pride that told its pre-Berlin Wall citizens the Communist half of Germany could / would rise as a model socialist state free from war, famine, unemployment, ill health, and poverty, but what emerged was a unique, warped world in which citizens from all levels of private and governmental levels of society were kept in check by instilling a fear in which no one could truly be trusted. As another historian explains, if three people were seated at a table, the state mandated one had to be a spy, observing and noting any potentialities for future dissent.
To modern eyes, the state’s logic is eerily similar to Philip K. Dick’s short story The Minority Report in which precogs sense unusual behaviour patterns, and alerts the police before a crime is committed. From the top-down, the GDR’s tactics weren’t ultimately about gathering truth or safeguarding the state’s ideology, but rather ensuring even spies themselves were so afraid of being recorded that there was no choice but to follow orders and lead by example, lest a new recruit was spying on the teacher. It was a machine that sort of became headless, running on autopilot to fill coffers of endless file cabinets.
Epperlein had emigrated to the U.S. not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and around Christmas of 1999 one of her twin brothers urged her to return home, as her father had just hung himself from a tree by the family’s old house.
What Epperlein attempts to unearth decades later is more than the Why. Clues from passingly normal correspondences between father and daughter – letters, postcards – contradict the logic of the sudden suicide, and yet prior to his death, her father destroyed every photo and document from his past.
Was he being hounded by some persecutor? Was he a former secret service (STASI) officer with a guilty past? Did anyone among Epperlein’s family, including her 74 year old mother, know of details too painful, or which remain too shocking, even in 2016?
The doc’s first act has Epperlein visiting her former home town of Chemnitz, rechristened Karl-Marx-Stadt by the East German Communists after the water, and rebirthed under its original name after the wall’s demise. Her story starts slow and initially seems to meander a little, but the informational nuances gleaned from discussions with family, historians, and preservationists gradually lead to striking facts of a regime branded authoritarian, criminal, dealers in human cargo, and batshit crazy for keeping a population in check for decades by maintaining tabs on everything everyone did, no matter how mundane.
When the wall tumbled and the regime was dead, Easterners swarmed the STASI headquarters and sought information gathered by the state, yet the spying bureaucrats were slightly ahead of them in destroying everything except files on snitches and their subjects. Neighbours and best friends were found to be traitors, and in a way the state had the last laugh by letting the inmates continue to fight amongst themselves while the jailers and sadistic guards faded into civilian banality.
But complex, self-propelled bureaucracies can’t eradicate everything, and the GDR’s STASI had become victims of information overload: the STASI kept collecting, filing items under related or sometimes distant categories (city blocks, postal codes, associations), enabling secrets to survive in paper, film, video, and audio form – authentic elements interwoven by the filmmakers and used to highlight the madness of a surveillance machine that couldn’t be stopped by its makers.
In a simple montage, the film’s narrator summarizes footage of an older couple as they walk a few times up & down a street, and the information is exceptionally uncontroversial: the shopping bags they carry are empty; the shopping bags are now full; a knife on the ground is seen and picked up but discarded; and a passerby picks up the knife who may be a STASI agent gathering evidence for a future crime, or a citizen grabbing the object for some nefarious deed to follow.
41,000 index cards were carefully organized by the STASI, and bags of shredded documents are still being sifted through and their contents collated into reformed puzzles that by the end of the film manage to provide Epperlein and her family with a key answer and related details, some of which are clarified by a family friend who worked in the same department as the spy tasked with surveilling her father for 5 years.
Three final scenes give the Epperlein family answers to nagging questions, but the need to search through archives for the continually emerging truth isn’t exclusive to one or a handful of families, because the legacy of such a rotten regime remains too fresh.
It is perhaps the most complex 40 year period in post-WWII German history because the impact of the GDR architects and its apparatchiks spanned generations, and the fact former children of the GDR must take it upon themselves to research their family tree in archives of a spy agency to confirm suspicions of banal villainy is utter madness. No generation deserves such a fate.
Karl Marx City is currently screening at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema this month.
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review