The husband-and-wife team of Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker first came to prominence with their Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace. Their latest film, Karl Marx City, is their first to feature a star of sorts: Epperlein herself, often seen in front of the camera (held by Tucker), roaming the streets of her hometown in the former East Germany with headphones on and a huge microphone in hand. The film alternates a very personal story—dogged by anonymous letters claiming he was an agent of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, Epperlein’s father killed himself shortly after the Berlin Wall fell—with archival footage and interviews. Epperlein investigates whether it could possibly be true that her father was spying on his family and neighbors—while also discovering just how deep the Stasi’s power extended into East German society. In the end, the film brings us up to date as a cautionary tale about possible abuses committed both by the NSA and corporate entities such as Facebook, although it deals with these issues indirectly.

Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. Image courtesy of BOND/360.

Did you choose black-and-white cinematography to integrate with archival footage?

Petra Epperlein: I have two answers. Basically, yes. But I also have another little anecdote. After the Wall came down, many West Germans came to East Germany and said, 'My God, it’s so gray here.' Of course, we East Germans were greatly offended, but now from today, when I look back at pictures from that period, it does look very gray. So that was also a reference to those images as well.

When I think about German cinema, I think of silent cinema from the Weimar cinema, which was in black-and-white or tinted, and New German Cinema, some of which was in black-and-white. Wings of Desire stands out as a definitive look at Berlin just before the Wall came down. Were any German films a particular influence to you?

Michael Tucker: That’s interesting, because I spent endless time sampling various films all the way to Wings of Desire looking for the right contrast. I love Wings of Desire, although I think it hasn’t aged well. I found that film too milky for us. We finally found the right contrast ratio to us. But all of those things were important to us.

Petra, the recording equipment gives you a certain look and also functions as a prop, even though you needed to carry it because you were recording sound in front of the camera, which is rare for filmmakers to do.

Epperlein: We have never done that before. One of us has never been in front of the camera. Mike’s behind it anyway. The way we filmed me doing audio recordings worked very well because while it was technically necessary for me to record audio, it was also a metaphor of me listening to people, collecting information and storing it while making a film about spying.

Tucker: An interesting advantage to it is that, as you’ll probably notice, in most of the footage there are no people in the frame with her. That sometimes was due to the weather, but also to the fact no one wanted to be close to someone holding a microphone! So the path was suddenly cleared. Setting up a microphone was a great way to empty the city. You can credit that to East German paranoia.

Is Karl Marx City isolated?

Epperlein: It’s a big city in itself. 250,000 people used to live there. It’s a thirty-minute drive from Dresden and two and a half hours from Berlin. It’s in the thick of it. It was traditionally an industrial town, a workers’ town.

The answers you find about your father leave you feeling pretty raw. Did the process of making the film wind up making you feel better, or produce any catharsis?

Epperlein: While we were making the film, I never thought about it. Last January, for the first time in seventeen years, I forgot the anniversary of his suicide and only remembered his birthday. So I think making the film was therapeutic after all. For my mother and brothers, it was painful to revisit. Many unpleasant memories were dug up. But in the end, everyone is glad to know what we found and be certain that my father is the man we always knew he was.

How much did you talk about the issues raised by the film with your family before making it?

Epperlein: We had never talked about it at all. It was very difficult to get them to talk to me for the film. They were very resistant to looking back. Their complicity in life under the communist regime was one issue. My mother really didn’t want to go there. The death of my father was also very touchy.

Looking back, the ’70s were an incredibly culturally fertile period in West Germany, with New German Cinema and Krautrock bands like Can and Amon Düül II. How much of that made its way into East Germany?

Epperlein: At the time the Wall was still up, I was quite young. We listened to Radio Luxembourg a lot, and West German radio. We could all watch West German TV. There was always this alternative version in the same language available.

Petra Epperlein in KARL MARX CITY. Image courtesy of BOND/360.

In the press kit, you talk about Edward Snowden and your fears about the totalitarian potential of social media. But it’s not really explicit in the film. Had you thought about bringing that out further?

Epperlein: We do talk about how the Stasi would’ve loved Facebook.

Tucker: I think there’s a larger discussion which is fairly obvious. You’re asking about it. Most people who’ve talked to us asked about it. In an analog world like East Germany, you could retain your privacy more than this world. Here, we give up our privacy to get attention, but the more attention you get, the more public your life becomes. Our whole system is hobbled by the fact that there is no privacy in anything.

Epperlein: A lot of our attention is focused on the NSA and what they do with our information, but what about corporations like Facebook? It’s one thing for the government to spy on us, because in a democracy we should be able to, theoretically or even practically, control what they do with that information, and how they spy on us. We just have to be vigilant. With private entities, there’s no such control.

While I was watching the film, I suddenly remembered that I belong to Goodreads, and while I like sharing the books I read with my friends and having a database of them I can search, I realized I’ve also given Facebook a list of all the books I’ve read in the past five years.

Epperlein: It’s interesting, right?

Tucker: One of the things that came out of the election, beyond the allegations of collusion and hacking, was how smartly conservative political operatives were able to use Facebook data, just by crunching the numbers and all this data that people freely share. You’re able to suddenly shift those numbers into the right columns. The government doesn’t have that power. Look how contentious having a census is. Suddenly we’re able to have private companies with databases that dwarf the census by tenfold.

Epperlein: There’s also the possibility that these companies and the government will work together, like when you enter the country and have to surrender your social media passwords to the immigration agencies. It’s scary!

I saw some discussion about an academic conference in Chicago on Facebook, and people were talking about arriving from overseas with only burner cell phones and iPads containing nothing but their academic papers.

Epperlein: We’re living in some time loop, in terms of how paranoid we’ve become and how little trust we can display. It’s twenty-five or thirty years ago again.

Do you find that most Americans understand the differences between West and East Germany beyond the fact that one was capitalist and the other communist?

Epperlein: Hard to tell. Probably not. The Lives of Others did a great job of telling a story of that time, although it’s faulty and has its mistakes. But still, many people were exposed to the nuances of that time. One of our motivations was to tell another story from that time, because people still know so little about it.

Well, you interview a scholar critiquing that film at some length.

Tucker: He came at it as someone studying the Stasi past, a historian. He wants to stay in the realm of fact. There’s no evidence that someone like that [the kindly Stasi agent in The Lives of Others] ever existed. Stories like that are comforting, like 'Well, there were good people, though.' To me, it’s a little like Schindler’s List. He did exist, but the focus on him is a little dangerous because it takes away from  the fact that there were many more people who did collaborate and commit atrocities.

Especially since it and Shoah are the best-known films made about the Holocaust, and it’s about Jews who survived.

Tucker: It’s interesting that you would compare those two films. Shoah succeeds because it really makes you confront difficult aspects of the Holocaust, like complicity. Schindler’s List played around the world, in places where audiences likely didn’t know the history of the Holocaust. They were able to learn something, but in a very simplified way. That’s always the danger of cinema and entertainment.

Do you see connections between Karl Marx City and your work on the Iraq War?

Tucker: All our films have fallen into our laps.

Epperlein: When we made the Iraq War films, we were living in Germany then and quite physically removed from American culture. We waited to make the film about East Germany until we moved to America and had some distance. Karl Marx City is our first personal film, and neither of us had appeared in our films, but it succeeded.

Top image: Petra Epperlein in the 5th grade at Valentina Tereshkova School, Karl Marx City, 1977. Image courtesy of BOND/360.