Petra Epperlein had forgotten what she was doing on Oct. 7, 1989, but the photograph showed it plain as day. “I almost fainted,” she said, as she looked at the picture, watchful and taken from a distance, of herself in her twenties and her father among a crowd of observers looking at the protest below. The image was taken by the secret police in the final days of the East German dictatorship, as part of their notoriously invasive mass surveillance program.
Epperlein stumbled upon the photo while investigating a family secret: Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunified, her father received anonymous letters accusing him of being an informant for the Ministry of State Security, or Stasi. After her father committed suicide in 1999, Epperlein wanted to know if the accusation was true, and if it contributed to her father’s decision to kill himself.
The investigation is the subject of a new documentary, Karl Marx City. The film takes its name from the city where Epperlein was born. Back when Germany was divided in two and the German Democratic Republic in the east was ruled by a communist dictatorship, Karl Marx City was an industrial center of the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat. After reunification, the city returned to its prewar name, Chemnitz, and most signs of the communist regime were erased. “There is no continuity in the life of East Germans,” said Epperlein. “When Germany talks about its history, the East German part plays a very, very tiny part” in the official narrative. Karl Marx City follows Epperlein’s effort to uncover the truth about her family and to understand a world that has literally been erased from the map.
Surveillance was “the essential element of life,” Epperlein told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “Everybody had a good childhood. I had loving parents and friends,” but she was careful to draw a distinction. “My personal experience is disconnected from the harshness of what went on.”
The documentary explores this paradox through the Stasi’s own surveillance footage. At face value, the images are unremarkable, almost boring — men, women, and children going about their day-to-day existence. But they reveal obsessive and pervasive spying. “You always had a feeling it existed, but you never really knew what was going on,” said Epperlein, recalling her childhood.
It was this uncertainty that gave the Stasi its power. The question of how many people worked for the Stasi is still unclear. An employee at the Stasi archive told BuzzFeed News that “there is no simple answer.” However, documents show that by 1988 there were tens of thousands of Stasi employees and nearly 200,000 documented informants. That amounts to roughly one spy per 60 citizens, and research suggests that the numbers were much higher, with many more undocumented “information providers” who spied on their coworkers, classmates, neighbors, or friends. You could never be sure if you were speaking in confidence, and for decades it effectively silenced political discussion. If you had something to say, “you would go for a long walk in the woods,” said Epperlein, now in her fifties.
Stasi oppression was “very sophisticated,” pointed out Michael Tucker, Epperlein’s coproducer and husband. “It’s not necessarily the oppression of violence, it’s so subtle, it’s so in everything.” Epperlein agreed. For her, “One thing that surveillance achieved back then and achieves now is it erodes trust.”
In the film, Epperlein’s mother, Christa, discusses the possibility that her husband had been an informant and says, “I’m a little afraid...If you learn that someone who you trusted did something. That’s difficult. That’s why I always thought, rather not know.” The specter of pervasive surveillance opened up even the most intimate relationships to suspicion. While Christa hid from dark questions about her husband, Epperlein distrusted her father. “Everything is possible and you never know what was really going on,” she recalled. “We were kids and you never really know your parents. I was pretty much ready for everything.”
The product of that surveillance is now archived and available to the public through records requests. There have been more than 7 million such inquiries since 1991. Out of the shadows and subject to careful oversight, the records are oddly quaint — analog and organized by an extensive card catalog. On microfiche, one of the archivists observes in the film, the images of envelopes intercepted and opened by the Stasi look like miniature houses.
The records are so extensive, however, that the materials, including photographs, video and audio recordings, and 41 million index cards, would stretch 68 miles, roughly equivalent to the width of New Jersey. “One of the interesting things is how much of the information they collected was complete nonsense,” Tucker observed. “There’s a certain madness in it. How much can you collect before it’s ridiculous?”
It took four years for Epperlein to receive her father’s records. Ultimately, the records show that Epperlein’s father was not an informant. In fact, the file reveals the Stasi regarded his political views as suspicious and that his boss reported on his activities, along with details about the family life. “This is bitter,” Epperlein’s mother says in the film. It’s “an invasion of privacy at a level I did not expect,” Epperlein said in the interview.
While the file doesn’t answer the question of why Epperlein’s father decided to kill himself, knowing that he was not an informant has given the family closure. When Epperlein finds the picture of the protest in the film, the narrator observes that Stasi surveillance shows her father as the man she always knew him to be. “It kept a record of my life for me,” she told BuzzFeed News. Of course, she also pointed out, “it comes back to trust.”
In the quarter century since the Wall came down, it has become commonplace for many people to share intimate details of their lives on social media. Reflecting on our current environment, Tucker said, “We don’t have any barriers on privacy anymore, we all want attention, that’s how we get our status.”
“People trust their information not to be used against them,” said Epperlein. “Is it justified to be that trusting? I don’t know, I’m not on Facebook.”