A wise man once noted that God gave human beings one mouth and two ears. “You should prioritize accordingly,” this sage concluded. The ratio of ears to eyes is less suggestive but Jewish lore has occasional hints that hearing might still be the preferred sense for gathering information. After all, when Divine Law was passed to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai, it was done so orally, and the Israelites replied, “We will do and we will hear.”
These thoughts spring rather readily to mind when contemplating two new films, “The Ticket” and “Karl Marx City,” whose stories hinge on the unreliability of vision and the dangers of excessive vision, respectively. The first, a fiction film by Israeli writer-director Ido Fluk, examines the parabolic trajectory of a blind man who regains his sight, while the latter, a documentary by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, investigates the undigested historical aftermath of the fall of the German Democratic Republic. While it might seem unlikely, the two films chime together.
James (Dan Stevens), the protagonist of “The Ticket,” lost his eyesight while in his teens. He has thrived despite that setback, and has a house, a wife, a son and apparent happiness, somewhere in the Midwest. When he wakes up one morning to find his vision restored the change energizes him. He goes from being an earnest, mildly successful real estate salesman in a firm that seems to specialize in hiring the blind to do cold calls, to reinventing himself as an unscrupulous predator, using the ongoing chaos of the post-crash market, combined with a slick line of fake self-help doctrines, to scam his neighbors out of their homes. At the same time, he trades up in car, house and wife, turning his back on the saintly Sam (Malin Akerman) for fellow wheeler-dealer Jessica (Kerry Bishé) and dumping his best friend Bob (Oliver Platt).
Fluk and co-writer Sharon Mashihi clearly intend “The Ticket” as a parable and a cautionary tale about the fleeting nature of sensory pleasures.
Fluk and co-writer Sharon Mashihi clearly intend “The Ticket” as a parable and a cautionary tale about the fleeting nature of sensory pleasures, particularly effective in the film’s opening moments when James’s vision returns in a welter of flashes and movements of light, but he resists any urges to make the world in which the film is set concrete and specific. Consequently, “The Ticket” feels thin, moralistic without an anchor in a social reality.
That sensation is amplified by the rather flat characterizations. James’s evolution from loving husband to louse needs more detail to make sense, a problem that is reinforced by the monotony of Stevens’s performance (although his glassy blue-gray eyes, offset by a weak chin, make him an effective anti-hero reminiscent of Arthur Kennedy). With more psychological texture and concrete detail, “The Ticket” could have been a telling fable of incipient corruption. As it is, the film never is more than a blueprint for one.
Oddly, “Karl Marx City” is a brilliant reversal of that set-up, with the carefully chosen weight of details, drawn from hundreds of hours of surveillance footage and home movies, making the story of filmmaker Petra Epperlein and her family a potent stand-in for thousands whose lives were blighted by the paranoiac secret-keepers of the East German security state. The film takes its title from the East German name for what was once Chemnitz, Karl-Marx Stadt. Fittingly in the 1990s the industrial city’s populace chose to return to the former name, trying to shuck off the GDR years as quickly as they had shed the Nazi period before them.
This is where Epperlein grew up and it was, the film’s narration rather tentatively proposes, a happy childhood. Her father was a successful management figure in one of the city’s many industrial plants, esteemed by colleagues and superiors alike. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he and his wife endured some economic hardships but nothing that would have suggested that shortly after New Year’s Day 1999, he would commit suicide. Epperlein’s investigation of the circumstances surrounding that event becomes the armature for her film, a stark and chilling accounting of the pervasive spy state that was the GDR.
Epperlein and Tucker astutely structure the film around a bricolage composed of Stasi footage and tapes, interviews with historians and curators specializing in the East German state, home movies and contemporary footage of Epperlein’s family and a series of recurring images of the co-director wandering the streets of Chemnitz with a boom mike in her hand, a somewhat obvious yet effective metaphor for her turning the tables on her nation’s former tormentors. All of this footage is either in black-and-white or faded period color until the penultimate shot of the film when the 21st century suddenly returns in the muted palette of a rather clinical-looking library, a moment made all the more effective for its subtle hues.
As we all know by now, the East German state was the perfect Orwellian beehive, with over 200,000 informers cooperating with the massive security apparatus to eavesdrop on a mere 17 million people. As “Karl Marx City” makes brutally clear, nothing was off limits in the state’s obsessive desire to know everything — from their political attitudes to their personal hygiene, from their sexual preferences to what street they walked home on — about its citizen-victims. And as any German Jew of a certain generation can tell you, that is not a safe street on which to walk home.
“The Ticket” is screening at the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.), and will be available on demand. Cinemavillage.com.
“Karl Marx City” is playing through April 11 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.). filmforum.org.