L.P. Hartley's famous proverb that "the past is a foreign country: They do things differently there" is literalized in Karl Marx City, a noir-inflected autobiographical essay film about growing up in East Germany -- a nation that dissolved, along with its sinister state security apparatus, the Stasi, in 1990. Filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker raise intriguing ideas about memory and surveillance. Citizens of the German Democratic Republic were the most spied-upon in history; who knows how much longer this ignominious record will stand? But, as too often happens in nonfiction movies, the filmmakers' exploration of these concepts is undermined by ill-considered execution.
Epperlein is not only the co-director of Karl Marx City but also its subject and, in one of the documentary's more wearying conceits, its tour guide. Her father's suicide, in early 1999, prompts the filmmakers' return 15 years later to her hometown -- the place name of the title, which, after German reunification, reverted to Chenmitz. She sets out to solve a mystery: Did vater end his life because he was about to be outed as a one-time Stasi agent or informant?
Of the experts consulted onscreen, two specialize in illumination of the dimmest wattage, and frequent structural misjudgments are frustrating because they distract from engaging lines of inquiry. Woven throughout KMC is declassified Stasi surveillance footage -- what the filmmakers piquantly call in the press notes the "B-roll of a dictatorship" -- archival material that gives the documentary ballast. One bit of Stasi footage shows the entrance and exit of every employee at a factory, a segment that forms a queasy twinship with the very first actualité ever made: Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895).