In 1999, filmmaker Petra Epperlein’s fifty-seven-year-old father, Wolfgang, thoroughly washed his company car, burned all of his personal papers and photographs, and then hanged himself from a tree in the family garden in their home in Chemnitz, which was known as Karl Marx City in what was formerly communist East Germany from shortly after the end of WWII to the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Much like Karl Marx City, her father set out to erase himself,” narrator Matilda Tucker, Epperlein’s daughter, says near the beginning of the intricately plotted and gripping documentary Karl Marx City. “All that he left behind were questions.” Fifteen years later, Epperlein, who has made such sociopolitical films with her husband, Michael Tucker, as Gunner Palace, The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, and Bulletproof Salesman — the duo call themselves Pepper & Bones — returned to Chemnitz to try to answer some of those questions and find out whether her father had killed himself because, as was rumored, he had collaborated with the Stasi, the much-feared East German secret police. Between 1950 and 1990, the German Democratic Republic employed 92,000 officers and 200,000 informants to spy on their own friends, neighbors, and family, using audio and video to track their every move in order to identify supposed enemies of the state. Written, directed, edited, and produced by Epperlein and Tucker — Petra also did the audio recording and Michael served as cinematographer and sound designer — Karl Marx City features declassified surveillance tapes, broadcast intercepts, and propaganda films from the Ministry for State Security (the Stasi, or Staatssicherheit) along with striking new black-and-white footage of Epperlein’s quest as she poignantly retraces her father’s steps. She meets with such current and former employees of the Stasi Archive as Lothar Raschker, Dr. Juliane Schütterle, and Dagmar Hovestadt, Cold War and GDR expert Dr. Douglas Selvage, and Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial director Dr. Hubertus Knabe to examine the history of the Stasi and detail the effects it had on the psyche of the German people.
Epperlein also speaks with former classmate Jana X and her parents, Stasi collaborators R. and S., and historian and suicide-letter expert Dr. Udo Grashoff, who examines a note and postcard that Wolfgang sent Petra just before he killed himself. “The main question of the Stasi was, Who is the enemy, and how can we prove that he is an enemy or she is an enemy?” Dr. Grashoff points out. “But you and I, we have different questions. And we find in the files empirical material that allows us to answer our different questions, and this is the value of the Stasi files for me. I’m not interested in the questions of the Stasi. You can find your own truth.” Petra’s twin brothers, Uwe and Volker, and their mother, Christa, also talk about their father, with Christa sometimes hesitant and emotional. Visiting sites from her family’s past, Epperlein travels everywhere wearing headphones and carrying a large fur-covered microphone, emphasizing how her, and our, world is still under constant surveillance. “No aspect of society escaped their gaze,” Tucker narrates early on, referring to the Stasi. “Everyone a suspect. The enemy is everyone.” Epperlein occasionally addresses the camera directly, creating boundary-shattering moments between filmmaker and audience while evoking the ability of the camera and microphone to make us all subjects, particularly in this surveillance-heavy age. In addition, Karl Marx City offers a vocabulary lesson, defining such words as Die Wende (“the change”), Ostalgie (“the feeling for home”), Erinnerungskutlur (“the culture of remembrance”), and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“the process of coming to terms with the past”), the letters shown onscreen in torn red-and-white strips as if ripped from tabloid headlines or ransom notes. Karl Marx City is an eye-opening look at a frightening past as well as a potent reminder of what can always happen again — if it isn’t already. The film opens March 29 at Film Forum and will be preceded by Alexander Lahl and Volker Schlecht’s seven-minute animated short, Broken — The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck; Epperlein and Tucker will participate in Q&As following the 7:00 shows on March 29 and 31 and the 4:40 show on April 1.
CABARET CINEMA: KNIFE IN THE WATER (NÓŻ W WODZIE) (Roman Polanski, 1962)
Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th St. at Seventh Ave.
Friday, March 17, 9:30
“Even discounting wind, weather, and the natural hazards of filming afloat, Knife in the Water was a devilishly difficult picture to make,” immensely talented and even more controversial Roman Polanski wrote in his 1984 autobiography, Roman by Polanski. That is likely to have been a blessing in disguise, upping the ante in the Polish filmmaker’s debut feature film, a tense three-character thriller set primarily on a sailboat, filmed on location. Upper-middle-class couple Andrzej (theater veteran Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (nonprofessional actor Jolanta Umecka) are on their way to their sailboat at the marina when a young hitchhiker (drama school grad Zygmunt Malanowicz) forces them to pull over on an otherwise empty road. Andrzej and the unnamed man almost immediately get involved in a physical and psychological pissing contest, with Andrzej soon inviting him to join them on their sojourn, practically daring the hitchhiker to make a move on his wife. Once on the boat, the two men continue their battle of wills, which becomes more dangerous once the young man reveals his rather threatening knife, which he handles like a pro. Lodz Film School graduate Polanski, who collaborated on the final screenplay with Jerzy Skolimowski (The Shout, Moonlighting) after initially working with Jakub Goldberg, envelops the black-and-white Knife in the Water in a highly volatile, claustrophobic energy, creating gorgeous scenes intimately photographed by cinematographer Jerzy Lipman, from Andrzej and Krystyna in their small car to all three trying to find space on the boat amid the vast sea and a changing wind. Many of the shots are highlighted by deep focus in which one character is shown in close-up in the foreground with the others in the background, alerting the viewer to various potential conflicts — sexual, economic, class- and gender-based — all underscored by Krzysztof T. Komeda’s intoxicating jazz score featuring saxophonist Bernt Rosengren.
The first Polish film to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and winner of the Critics’ FIPRESCI Prize at the 1962 Venice Film Festival, Knife in the Water is screening March 31 in the Rubin Museum Cabaret Cinema series “Perception,” part of the institution’s latest Brainwave programming, and will be introduced by professor of psychology and neural science Dr. Clayton Curtis. “Perception” continues Friday nights through April 28 with such other mind-bending films as The Iron Giant, The Matrix, and Ghost in the Shell; meanwhile, Brainwave takes on such topics as “Keeping Your Eye on the Ball” with Patrick Vieira and John Krakauer on April 17, “Can we trust how our brain tells time?” with Ted Chiang and Dean Buonomano on April 21, and “What Makes a True Work of Art?” with Tobias Meyer and Frank Moore on April 26.
Park Ave. Armory, Veterans Room
643 Park Ave. at 67th St.
Friday, March 31, and Friday, April 14, $15, 6:00
Play continues through April 22, $60-$195
The Old Vic production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 play, The Hairy Ape, which was also made into a 1944 film starring William Bendix, Susan Hayward, Dorothy Comingore, and John Loder, has begun previews in the Park Ave. Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall, prior to a March 30 opening; the show, starring Bobby Cannavale (in a role previously played onstage by such actors as Louis Wolheim, Paul Robeson, and Willem Dafoe) and directed by Richard Jones (Into the Woods, Too Clever by Half), runs through April 22. In conjunction with the play, the armory will be hosting two special events as part of its ongoing Conversation Series. On March 31 at 6:00 in the Veterans Room, the artist talk “A Hairy Ape for the 21st Century” will feature Jones, Cannavale, and O’Neill scholar and English professor Robert M. Dowling discussing the impact of the play nearly one hundred years after its debut. Two weeks later, on April 14 at 6:00, Catherine Combs (who plays Mildred), New-York Historical Society chief historian Valerie Paley, and theater arts and gender studies associate professor Erika Rundle will delve into “The Hairy Ape & New York City: Class vs. Identity.” O’Neill fans will also want to check out The Emperor Jones, continuing through April 23 at the Irish Rep, and Target Margin Theater’s six-hour revival of Mourning Becomes Electra, running April 26 to May 20.
We’ve been Kory Stamper groupies ever since we happened upon one of her “Ask the Editor” videos on YouTube nearly seven years ago. Since 2010, Merriam-Webster associate editor Emily Brewster, editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski, and associate editor Stamper have been making short videos delving into the etymology and usage of words and phrases, from the serial comma and “It is I vs. It is me” to weird plurals and “lay vs. lie.” In introducing her “harm·less drudg·ery | defining the words that define us” webiste in December 2011, Stamper, explained, “We might as well start this blog with a confession: I never planned on being a lexicographer.” Stamper has now written her first book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (March 14, Penguin Random House, $26.95), in which she goes behind the scenes of how dictionaries are put together, making the most of her playful sense of humor. “Language is one of the few common experiences humanity has,” she writes in the preface. “Not all of us can walk; not all of us can sing; not all of us like pickles. But we all have an inborn desire to communicate why we can’t walk or sing or stomach pickles. To do that, we use our language, a vast index of words and their meanings we’ve acquired, like linguistic hoarders, throughout our lives.” Among the book’s chapters are “Hrafnkell: On Falling in Love,” “Irregardless: On Wrong Words,” “Bitch: On Bad Words,” and “Nuclear: On Pronunciation.” Describing her initial meeting with M-W director of defining Steve Perrault, who would become her boss, she remembers, “Apparently, neither of us enjoyed job interviews. I, however, was the only one perspiring lavishly. ‘So tell me,’ he ventured, ‘why you are interested in lexicography.’ I took a deep breath and clamped my jaw shut so I did not start blabbing. This was a complicated answer.” On March 28, you can join the ever-growing number of word nerds as they throng the Upper West Side B&N to venture even further (farther?) down the hallowed halls of M-W and hear from one of its superstars, there to share her inside info and regale all with her morphological magic.
A MAN AND A WOMAN (UN HOMME ET UNE FEMME) (Claude Lelouch, 1966)
French Institute Alliance Française, Florence Gould Hall
55 East 59th St. between Madison & Park Aves.
Tuesday, March 28, $40, 7:30
Winner of both the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman is one of the most popular, and most unusual, romantic love stories ever put on film. FIAF is celebrating the work’s fiftieth anniversary by screening a newly restored version on March 28 as part of the Focus on French Cinema festival, followed by a Q&A with the seventy-nine-year-old Lelouch, who has also made such films as Vivre pour vivre, Les Uns et les Autres, La bonne année, and La Belle Histoire, and writer-director Philippe Azoulay. In A Man and a Woman, Oscar-nominated Anouk Aimée stars as Anne Gauthier and Jean-Louis Trintignant as Jean-Louis Duroc, two people who each has a child in a boarding school in Deauville. Anne, a former actress, and Jean-Louis, a successful racecar driver, seem to hit it off immediately, but they both have pasts that haunt them and threaten any kind of relationship. Shot in three weeks with a handheld camera by Lelouch, who earned nods for Best Director and Best Screenplay (with Pierre Uytterhoeven), A Man and a Woman is a tour de force of filmmaking, going from the modern day to the past via a series of flashbacks that at first alternate between color and black-and-white, then shift hues in curious, indeterminate ways. Much of the film takes place in cars, either as Jean-Louis races around a track or the protagonists sit in his red Mustang convertible and talk about their lives, their hopes, their fears. The heat they generate is palpable, making their reluctance to just fall madly, deeply in love that much more heart-wrenching, all set to a memorable soundtrack by Francis Lai. Lelouch, Trintignant, and Aimée revisited the story in 1986 with A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later, without the same impact and success. There will also be a special twenty-minute excerpt from Azoulay’s upcoming documentary about Lelouch, Tourner Pour Vivre (Shoot to Live); the evening will conclude with an after-party featuring wine, cocktails, and hors d’oeuvres.
Who: Sanford Biggers, Saya Woolfalk
What: Artist conversation
Where: Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, 535 West 22nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves., sixth floor, 212-255-8450
When: Saturday, March 25, free, 6:00
Why: In conjunction with the multimedia solo exhibition “Saya Woolfalk: ChimaCloud and the Pose System,” which continues at Leslie Tonkonow through April 1, New York–based artists Saya Woolfalk and Sanford Biggers will talk about their work. Woolfalk, who is from Japan, builds dramatic, fantastical worlds inspired by her family background, while Biggers, from Los Angeles, creates provocative installations, as evidenced by his 2011–12 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Sanford Biggers: Sweet Funk — An Introspective.”
I CALLED HIM MORGAN (Kasper Collin, 2016)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Francesca Beale Theater
144 West 65th St. at Amsterdam Ave.
Opens Friday, March 24
On February 19, 1972, during a massive blizzard, thirty-three-year-old jazz trumpeter extraordinaire Lee Morgan was shot to death by his common-law wife, Helen, in Slugs’ Saloon on the Lower East Side. Swedish director, writer, and producer Kasper Collin takes viewers behind the scenes of the tragedy in the sensational documentary I Called Him Morgan. The Philadelphia-born Morgan was a young prodigy, studying with Clifford Brown, playing with Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra when he was eighteen, and joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at twenty. Preferring the term “black classical music” to “jazz,” Morgan was caught up in a lifestyle of fast cars and drugs, ultimately hitting rock bottom until he was rescued by Helen Moore, thirteen years his elder, a farm girl from North Carolina who loved throwing parties in her adopted hometown of New York City and was a beloved fixture in the jazz community. Collin amasses an impressive roster of jazz greats who share their insights, including saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Bennie Maupin, and Billy Harper, drummers Albert “Tootie” Heath and Charli Persip, and bassists Larry Ridley, Jymie Merritt, and Paul West, along with Morgan neighbor Ron St. Clair, Helen’s son Al Harrison, and Morgan’s very close friend, Judith Johnson, many of whom are going on the record for the first time. “There was never no doubt in anybody’s mind: Lee was gonna be a star, Persip remembers. “They cared about each other. They loved each other,” Maupin says about Lee and Helen. There are also rare audio clips from an interview British writer and photographer Val Wilmer conducted with Morgan in October 1971 in Lee and Helen’s Bronx apartment. The film is anchored by a remarkable interview Helen gave writer, teacher, and jazz radio announcer Larry Reni Thomas in February 1996, a month before she died. “I will not sit here and tell you that I was so nice, because I was not,” she tells Thomas, speaking often in broken phrases. “One of the . . . will cut you. I was sharp. Yeah . . . I had to be. And I looked out for me.” It all culminates in a spellbinding, detailed account of the murder itself, told by numerous eyewitnesses with “Stagger Lee”-like swagger.
“He knew how to tell a story,” 2016 Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame inductee Shorter says of Morgan, who released more than two dozens albums (among them The Sidewinder, Search for the New Land, and Lee-Way) in his too-brief career, primarily for Blue Note, while also appearing on records by John Coltrane, Blakey, Gillespie, Quincy Jones, and many others. With I Called Him Morgan, Collin (My Name Is Albert Ayler) proves that he knows how to tell a story too. Initially inspired by a YouTube clip of Morgan performing, Collin spent seven years putting the documentary together, combing through archives and convincing people to participate. The film unfolds like an epic jazz composition as Collin and editors Hanna Lejonqvist, Eva Hillström, and Dino Jonsäter interweave amazing archival footage, a wide range of personal and professional photographs (mostly by Wilmer and Blue Note cofounder Francis Wolff), new interviews, and poetic, atmospheric shots of snow, sunsets, cityscapes, and other outdoor scenes by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, Arrival). Throughout, Morgan’s glorious music is heard, front and center or in the background, including such songs as “Gaza Strip,” “Tom Cat,” “New-Ma,” “Lament for Stacy,” “The Procrastinator,” “Absolutions,” “Angela” (for Angela Davis), and “Helen’s Ritual,” tunes that are not only revelatory but also a constant reminder of the talent the world lost in 1972. “I find that the essence of creativity is the newness of things,” Morgan told Wilmer in 1971. “And the only way to keep things new is to have constant changes in environment and surroundings and people, and all that, you know. And that’s the thing that makes it so exciting about being a jazz musician.” It’s also what makes Collin’s film so exciting. I Called Him Morgan opens March 24 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Francesca Beale Theater, with Collin participating in Q&As on March 24 at 6:00 (with jazz critic Gary Giddins) and 8:15 and March 25 at 6:00 with jazz historian Ashley Kahn; it will expand to Metrograph on March 31.