TIFF Review: ‘Karl Marx City’

TIFF 2016

3 mins read

Karl Marx City
(USA/Germany, 89 min.)
Dir. Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)


The phrase “you can never go home again” is a cliché but its poetic sentiment has rarely been more effectively rendered than in Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s extraordinary film Karl Marx City.

Personal documentaries are often, by their inherent structure, insular affairs bordering on the salacious or solipsistic. But Epperlein’s narrative is so wonderfully compelling, with mixed aspects of expectation and innuendo, that the result on screen is not simply fascinating but also wonderfully cinematic.

Tracing Epperlein’s past is no easy feat, given that she was raised with the confines of the now defunct GDR (German Democratic Republic, which was also commonly known as Communist East Germany). East Germany had, as the film suggests, the most closely guarded surveillance state in history, with the dreaded “Stasi” employing agents and informants to maintain a sense of general fear and distrust in its populace, which helped to keep the country’s ideology free from the machinations of the West.

As the filmmakers explore the complex past of Epperlein’s father, an engineer who killed himself amid rumours surrounding his own compliance with the state, the story takes on a kind of “truth and reconciliation” factor, magnifying his story into one representing the millions upon millions of dossiers of other people watched and suspected under the Stasi’s gaze.

The intertwining of genuine surveillance footage in the film is particularly effective, making for the most surreal of home movies when a cameraperson was sent to spy, not to simply capture the moment. Epperlein’s personal examination lays bare the unsettling similarities between a documentarian’s camera and those of a bureaucratic state surveillance system. The needle-in-a-haystack motif is at play here, and when truths are uncovered they’re both cathartic and complex, revealing how even a small shift in temperament could easily have resulted in different findings.

Part mystery thriller, part autobiography, part meta-examination, Karl Marx City’s underlying philosophy is shaped by the writings of both Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. Like them, the filmmakers of this documentary are interested in power relations, justice and the amount of knowledge required by the state. The film manages to create a wonderful mix of sophistication and nuance while remaining accessible.

A visit to Karl Marx City is a memorable one. It offers unique insights into a truly disturbing and extraordinary moment in time and place.

Karl Marx City screens:
-Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 9:30 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank

TIFF runs Sept. 8 – 18. Please visit tiff.net for more information.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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