Tucker often serves as the d.p. on the documentaries he co-directs with his
wife and creative partner Petra Epperlein, but he has an unusual
co-cinematographer on their latest project: the dreaded East German Stasi. Archival
surveillance footage from the bad old days of socialism eerily supplement and
illustrate Epperlein’s painful family history in Karl Marx City, which screens during the 54th New York Film Festival.
she came from a loving family, it is hard for Epperlein to feel nostalgic for
her childhood in what was then called Karl-Marx-Stadt. The city changed its name
back to Chemnitz as soon as it could in 1990, but the painful legacy would live
on, especially for her parents. Epperlein gives us the run down on the scope of
the Stasi’s operations at the time of the Fall of the Wall: 90,000 active
agents and over 200,000 registered informants. The latter is particularly
relevant to the Epperleins, because her father started receiving poison pen
letters accusing him of being a snitch shortly after reunification.
the stress, guilt, resentment, or depression became too much for Mr. Epperlein
to bear, so he committed suicide after burning all his letters and photos.
Indeed, the extent to which he tried to erase all traces of himself is
especially disturbing for his daughter, so she launches an investigation into
her father’s relationship with the Stasi, if any. She will find her answers and
they will be a bitter pill to swallow, but maybe not in the way we expect.
KMC is an unusually
moving documentary that could even be called revelatory. However, it takes
viewers a bit of time to adjust to Epperlein’s aesthetics. The black-and-white cinematography—stark
and stylish in the case of Tucker, but just plain stark as far as the Stasi is
concerned—is certainly apt and fittingly evocative. However, the rather surreal
scenes of Epperlein carrying oddly large boom mics seem distractingly absurd
until we realize the exaggerated filmmaker persona is part of a defense
mechanism. Slowly, Epperlein lowers her mask, allowing us to viscerally
experience her family’s pain—and it stings.
Epperlein takes great pains to call out Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others for creating a
fictional good agent who protected his target, something that never happened in
real life. While we generally take her point, it should be noted the purpose of
Ulrich Mühe’s character was not to absolve the Stasi, but to indict it. This is
what those 90,000 agents might have chosen to do, but they didn’t.
offers an absolutely fascinating look into lives of relatively average GDR
citizens and documents how the Communist system continues to generate bad karma
for everyone it touched. It is challenging on many levels, but immediately
accessible. It is definitely one of the head-and-shoulders highlights of this
year’s NYFF, along with I Called Him Morgan and Two Trains Runnin’. Very
highly recommended, Karl Marx City screens
this Friday (12/14) and Saturday afternoon (12/15) as part of the Spotlight on
Documentary section at the 2016 New York Film Festival.
Labels: Documentary, East Germany, German Cinema, NYFF '16, Petra Epperlein, Stasi