Monday, March 27, 2017

At Film Forum: The horror of the German Democratic Republic via KARL MARX CITY and BROKEN--the Women's Prison at Hoheneck

A fascinating double bill about the late country of East Germany (aka the GDR or German Democratic Republic) -- that should lay to rest memories of that delightful, bubbly multi-award-winning German comedy, Good-bye Lenin! -- the two films that open at New York City's Film Forum for a two-week run this Wednesday make the GDR seem one of the prime horror haunts of our 20th-Century world.

The main attraction is the full-length documentary, KARL MARX CITY, by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker both of whom gave us the fine docs Gunner Palace and How to Fold a Flag, in which Ms Epperlein (shown at left, and below, right, with Mr. Tucker) investigates her own and her family's past in the GDR, a country in which, it turns out, one out of three people were spying on the other two.

If you saw and recall the Oscar-winning German film, The Lives of Others that detailed the work of the GDR's secret police agency, the Stasi, you'll have immediate entry into this world (though the documentary rather firmly discredits that movie's major plot point, as well as one of its main characters). As more and more of the Stasi's records become available for former East Germsns to view, Petterlein visits her family and the former Stasi headquarters on a mission to learn why her father committed suicide. Had he, as she suspects, worked as a Stasi informant?

The movie, then, is a kind of mystery coupled to an investigation of family, friends, co-workers and bosses in a culture in which there seemed to exist little trust -- and what there is was often betrayed. We tour the area, with Petterlein as our guide, meet her remaining family, and see and hear from a number of experts in the culture and history of the Stasi and the GDR, along with seeing and hearing a lot of archival footage, some of this actual Stasi surveillance imagery with sound included. Yeah: That's creepy and then some.

The entire film is shot in black and white and Petterlein/Tucker's present-day footage is gorgeously deep and dark with glorious grays of all sorts. The movie is artful and the mystery compelling. It is solved, by the way. Or part of it, at least. Suicide is seldom completely explained, I believe.

By the time we get to the Stasi report on the Epperlein family -- especially mom's reaction to this -- the movie becomes a kind of meditation of memory and even history, as well as our own willingness to so often "rush to judgment." Most of all, the movie is a look at what a deliberately defined culture of surveillance and mistrust can create. It ain't pretty. And it's probably in our future, too.

Released by Bond/360 and running just 89 minutes, the documentary opens this Wednesday, March 29, at Film Forum in New York City for a two- week run.

On the same program with Karl Marx City (named during the decades of the GDR for you-know-who, pictured above, in bronze) is a seven-minute animated film --  BROKEN--the Women's Prison at Hoheneck titled Kaputt in the original German) -- featuring relatively simple line drawings with shadings that accompany a narration that talks about what it was like to be a prisoner in this infamous jail in the GDR.  Both the narration and animation could hardly be simpler or more compact, and yet the overall effect is quietly horrifying. We learn of conditions in the overcrowded prison, the sanitary habits of the inmates, and most especially of the forced labor the women endured -- to sew items that were then sold in West Germany, the money from which helped keep the always near-bankrupt state of East Germany afloat.

This short film is so immediately engulfing and unsettling -- the many details presented in the narrations are beautifully captured by the animation (where the women's "lipstick" came from, for instance) -- that the little movie becomes, by its end, unforgettable. Directed by Alexander Lahl and Volker Schlecht (with artwork and animation by Schlecht) and written by Lahl and Max Moench, this is a film I'd suggest seeing after Karl Marx City, rather than before, if possible.

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