Goodbye Lenin, hello 'Ostalgie'

Issue 

REVIEW BY LOUIS PROYECT

Goodbye Lenin!
Directed by Wolfgang Becker
Written by Wolfgang Becker and Bernd Lichtenberg
With Daniel Bruhl, Kathrin Sass, Maria Simon, Chulpan Khamatova, Florian Lukas and Alexander Beyer
Screening at Dendy cinemas, Sydney; Electric Shadows cinema, Canberra; and cinemas nationally

It is 1989 and "communism" is crumbling everywhere except in the heart and mind of Christiane Kerner (Kathrin Sass), a middle-aged Berlin resident who has a picture of Che Guevara on her bedroom wall and is fiercely loyal to East German party leader Erich Honecker.

Her son Alex (Daniel Bruhl, who played the schizophrenic youth in the powerful White Sound) and daughter Ariane (Maria Simon) are typical young Berliners. They have little use for ideology and yearn for the material goods and personal liberty of the West. Despite their differences with their mother, they love her deeply and would do anything to make her happy.

One night, as Christiane heads toward a party celebration, she happens upon a police crackdown on anti-communist protesters, including her son, who is thrown into the back of a truck in handcuffs. The sight causes her to collapse on the street with a heart attack. She is brought to a hospital in a coma.

When Alex visits the hospital, the doctor tells him that there is no guarantee that Christiane will ever awake. If she does, the important thing is to prevent any shocks to her psyche, since another heart attack would prove fatal. For the next eight months, as Christiane lays motionless in her hospital bed, everything changes around her. The Berlin Wall collapses, the two Germanys are reunited and the East is flooded by Western companies.

Christiane regains consciousness, but in a weakened state. In a ploy that constitutes the dramatic tension of the film and its underlying political and social theme, Alex resolves to create an artificial environment back at home that is faithful to the Communist past. After elaborately preparing Christiane's bedroom with the clunky furniture and the Stalinoid photos they had discarded, they spirit her from the hospital making sure that the ambulance attendants stay mum about the political sea change.

Alex, who has befriended a co-worker and aspiring video artist at a Western satellite-dish company (his former employer has gone bankrupt, like almost all "Ostie" firms), relies on him to assemble archival news programs from the past, which they play for Christiane on a concealed VCR. The joke is that it really doesn't matter, since the "news" consists mainly of reports about dissatisfaction in the West with unemployment, drug addiction and other social problems.

This joke is part of an ensemble of comic situations as Alex goes to greater and greater lengths to sustain the illusion that communism is still in power. He searches desperately for consumer goods from the past that apparently not only appeal to his mother, but to other elderly East Berliners, who feel swamped by Western products that are alien to their culture. Although the word "globalisation" is not mentioned in the film, an astute member of the audience might think of the French farmer Jose Bove who vandalised a McDonald's for its encroachments of native cuisine and values.

As Alex ventures out into the brave new world of capitalism, he begins to question the changes. For example, when he brings his mother's East German currency to a bank to be converted into Deutschemarks, he is told that the deadline was two days earlier and that they are worthless. When he raises his voice in protest, bank guards throw him out.

In the final scene of the film, as his mother is approaching death, he stages one last ruse that summarises the sensibility of Wolfgang Becker, the film's director and co-author (written with Bernd Lichtenberg).

After Christiane has discovered traces of the West during an unsupervised stroll in her neighbourhood (Coca-Cola signs, BMWs), they convince her that immigrants from West Germany have recently begun flooding into the East, seeking refuge from unemployment and crime. The film's coda consists of a televised speech by East Germany's "new" head of state, a renowned former cosmonaut (a cab-driver recruited by Alex), who addresses the profound changes in Germany as it is reunited under socialism.

However, the speech does not consist of Stalinist jargon. Instead, it is a heartfelt plea for an egalitarian society based on human need rather than private profit. Obviously written by Alex, it is a sign of his final reconciliation with his mother on both familial and philosophical grounds.

On January 13, 2004, the New York Times reported on the phenomenon of "Ostalgie", a neologism that indicates nostalgia for the "East" or the Communist past, which is epitomised in a small museum in the town of Eisenhuttenstadt that has gotten a boost from the popularity of Good Bye Lenin!. It evokes Christiane's bedroom: "The museum is just a few rooms, mostly on the second floor of a former day-care center, but it holds 70,000 to 80,000 objects from the former East Germany. About 10,000 people a year come to look at Mikki transistor radios, jars of Bulgarian plums, schoolbooks, plastic water glasses that never seemed to come in the right colors. Seeing these familiar objects clearly stirs warm feelings about the vanished and unrecapturable past."

This is not just about nostalgia for chintzy objects that might be regarded as a German version of "camp". It is also about a growing disenchantment with the new capitalist world that many East Germans had assumed would be a kind of utopia: "Ostalgie is complicated, made up of various ingredients. One is clearly the disillusionment felt by many former Easterners over German reunification, which took place 13 years ago. Unemployment these days is commonly 25% in regions like Eisenhuttenstadt. Rents are no longer subsidized. Doctor visits cost money. People can be fired. In addition, as Andreas Ludwig, the West German scholar of urban history who started the museum a few years ago, noted, even capitalist products break down or are shabby and schlocky."

It would be too much to expect the New York Times to acknowledge what is truly driving "Ostalgie". It is the memory of Easterners that the old system guaranteed cheap rents, a job, medical care and low crime. With "globalisation" turning most of the planet into an ever more ruthless competition for disappearing jobs, such a past might retain some appeal. Indeed, a Lexis-Nexis search on "East Germany" and "nostalgia" returned 529 articles, many with headlines like "Wealth and freedom? No thanks, we'd rather have a Trabant" (referring to the defunct East German automobile).

The true story of East Germany's birth and death could never be conveyed in a film such as this, but there are realities that never surfaced in conventional Cold War narratives. In Carolyn Eisenberg's Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949, we learn that US President Franklin Roosevelt intended that Germany be deindustrialised, demilitarised and — most importantly — de-Nazified after the war, a goal shared by his partner Joseph Stalin. Then along came President Harry Truman, who saw communism as just another impediment to US hegemony. In violation of the Potsdam and Yalta agreements, Truman pushed for reindustrialisation of West Germany under the Marshall Plan and the creation of a formal West German state.

Washington then abruptly ended de-Nazification, leaving 640,000 war criminals unprosecuted and cancelled steps to break up the cartels that had provided much of Hitler's economic and social base. Defying conventional notions of Stalin's intractability, US ambassador Walter Bedell Smith confessed: "We really do not want nor intend to accept German unification in any terms that the Russians might agree to, even though they seemed to meet most of our requirements."

And what did the Soviets seek? Nothing but what had already been hammered out at Yalta and Potsdam, namely US$10 billion in reparations, four-power control of the Ruhr Valley and vigourous de-Nazification and permanent demilitarisation. In exchange, they would accept free elections throughout Germany modelled along the lines of the old Weimar Republic — hardly the stuff of communist subversion.

When the West reneged on all this, the Soviets began to crack down in the East. The rest is history.

[Louis Proyect is moderator of the Marxism List, <http://www.marxmail.org>.]

From Green Left Weekly, January 21, 2004.

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