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The Uncivil Servant: “Karl Marx City,” the State as Panopticon

Mitchell Abidor
March 27, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Karl Marx City, a 2016 documentary film written and directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker.

MY ECCENTRIC FRIEND Lenny wears a belt buckle with the state seal of the German Democratic Republic. He also owns, and on special occasions wears, a full uniform of the Volkspolizei, the People’s Police, which famously guarded the borders of the GDR and had little hesitation about shooting people fleeing to the West. He explains that almost all leftists of a certain stripe have a sentimental attachment to some dead socialist state, and his is for the GDR, the country of Bertolt Brecht, of the great singer Ernst Busch, of the brilliant composer Hanns Eisler, who wrote the music for the country’s national anthem, while the lyrics were written by Johannes Becker, a writer of considerably greater note than, say, Francis Scott Key.

Even Lenny’s affection would be shaken by Karl Marx City, a chilling documentary by former East German Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker. Karl Marx Stadt, originally and now again called Chemnitz, was where Epperlein grew up and where, years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, her father committed suicide. Several years before killing himself, he had received anonymous letters accusing him of having been an informer for the Stasi, and the family’s fear was that his suicide was tied to those accusations. Epperlein, now living in America, returns to her home and tries to get to the truth of her father’s life and death, of her family’s life, and life in the GDR.

The two best-known film versions of the GDR are the lighthearted 2003 Goodbye Lenin, directed by Wolfgang Becker, and the 2006 Teh Lives of Others, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The former is a perfect example of what was called “Ostalgie” -- nostalgia for the East -- as it presents the GDR as something that might have been globally bad but where there were nevertheless elements of daily life, and even political life, that were worth preserving. On the other hand, the militantly anti-GDR The Lives of Others depicted Stasi agents spying on and destroyed the lives of supposed enemies of the state, something for which everyone was suspected.

Karl Marx City further darkens that picture. We learn from a historian at the Stasi museum that the heart of The Lives of Others, in which the Stasi agent attempts to help the people he is spying on, was simply inconceivable, that the possibility of such humanity was excluded by the very functioning of the apparatus. However bizarre the surveillance methods employed in The Lives of Others might seem, we see in Karl Marx City from real surveillance footage and interviews with both experts and a former Stasi man that apartment break-ins were standard operating procedure: Polaroids would be taken of the areas in homes to be inspected, that apartments would then be gone through and suspicious items photographed, and then, thanks to the Polaroids, returned to their former position. Even worse, Stasi agents would sometimes enter an apartment and rearrange the furniture, just to let the suspect know they were being watched.

And watched they were: the number of people working directly or indirectly for the Stasi was a staggering 90,000 agents and 200,000 informants in a population of 17 million. Nothing was too insignificant for them to keep an eye on: We are presented with surveillance films of people simply entering a factory. What could be learned from such footage is a mystery, but the entire GDR, not just its prisons, was a panopticon, a prison in which the prisoner could be seen at all times by its guards. But its citizens were not necessarily aware of this. As we are told, “In Karl Marx City they couldn’t see the prison because they were in the prison. They couldn’t see the apparatus because they were the apparatus.” Or even more frighteningly" “Everyone is suspect. Everyone is the enemy.”

THE AMOUNT of surveillance and records on citizens of the GDR is astronomical. Remaining records measure 111 kilometers long, “remaining” because in the final days of the GDR, Stasi agents set to destroying records by tearing them into little pieces (clearly paper shredders either didn’t exist or weren’t widely used). Teams are still working on assembling these shreds in an effort to salvage the lost information.

Petra Epperlein roams her former town with headphones on and a microphone in her hand, as if carrying out a surveillance of the history of her homeland.

One key element makes only a fleeting appearance and gets a brief mention: Was anything done by the Stasi motivated by true belief? Epperlein discovers that the father of her best childhood friend was a Stasi agent, and she visits him. He reveals his activities and explains them in a context we never hear: “For me, socialism was something grand.” And he wasn’t ashamed of his work in defense of an idea that claimed that “all people were almost equal, that wanted no more wars. . . . I was very proud,” he insists.

It was not Epperlein and Tucker’s intention to provide a full portrait of the GDR. Petra is in search of the solution to the mystery of her father’s death, which she obtains. But there is another mystery, one that dogs the history of the socialist camp that lived so wretchedly and died so miserably. Did anyone believe in their proclaimed ideals? And for how long?

Not that the GDR’s existence has been totally effaced. In 1971, the Soviets donated a forty-ton bust of Marx to the city bearing his name. Too heavy to be removed, it remains in place in downtown Chemnitz, and he will likely forever glare down on yet another country that betrayed the dream he formulated in 1848.

IF THE ENTIRE GDR was a metaphorical prison, and Karl Marx City a brutal portrait of it, grimmer still is Drushba Pankow’s animated short, Kaputt, showing with it at Film Forum in New York. A depiction, all in grey, of life in Hoheneck Castle,the worst women’s political prison in the GDR, we again have every movement spied upon, every inch of the prisoners’ body and all their bodily functions subject to state control. It’s “a grey castle," the narration says, "the people had grey faces and wore grey clothing. The food was grey too.” The prison was a microcosm of the society, just as Kaputt is a microcosm of Karl Marx City.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.