Goodbye, Lenin is available on Amazon.com
When it comes to films, there are two subject matters that have zero interest for me. One is the Holocaust and the other is the Stasi—the East German secret police. Both lend themselves to predictability both in plot and message. We know that the Jews will be killed and families scattered. We also can be sure that the Stasi will come off as fiendish enemies of freedom and human rights. So, when it comes to stick figures, nothing works better than making films about fending off Nazi Commandants or Stalinist secret police—both with lines like “Ve haf ways of making you talk.”
This afternoon I was listening to an NPR interview on the Leonard Lopate show with the husband-and-wife team that made the documentary “Karl Marx City” that is described in the heading of A.O. Scott’s NY Times review as revisiting the “Everyday Terror of Dictatorship”. The wife is the daughter of a man who after being accused of being a Stasi agent after the fall of the Wall killed himself.
Just for the heck of it I Googled “Stasi” and “film” and discovered that this is a well-trodden theme going back to 2006’s “The Lives of Others”. It is all about people living in fear of informants in a society with an abnormally high suicide rate. Although I never saw the film, it sounded like a fictional version of “Karl Marx City”.
2012 was a banner year for East German Stasi films with “The Tower” and “Barbara” getting rave reviews. Stephen Holden’s review of “The Tower” mentions that an overweight East German soldier is forced to eat feces in boot camp as a punishment. Thank goodness, East Germany is now liberated but who will now liberate the USA where a Marine drill sergeant forced a Muslim enlistee into a laundry dryer, where he suffered second degree burns?
In a NY Times profile of Christian Petzold, the director of “Barbara”, he states that he did not want Stasi operatives to be “depicted as mustache-twirling villains”. The eponymous lead character is a doctor who has been banished to the countryside for some unspecified offense, where she is snooped on by Stasi operatives. We learn from a review of the film that Petzold was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, evidence of which is “the prickles of unease that creep into his work, creating a cold climate of paranoia and an oft-justified fear of an imminent threat.” I haven’t seen this film but when it comes to prickles of unease, you can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain”, where mustache-twirling villains abound.
In the Lopate interview, the subject of “Ostalgie” came up. Since East Germany has become pretty well integrated into the smoothly running German capitalist machine, there’s not much concern about “Ostalgie”, which is a neologism based on East (Ost) and Nostalgia. The couple briefly referred to its feeling among some East Germans that there were some good things about Communism, like workers not having to worry about unemployment.
I wonder if that meant much to NPR listeners, who strike me as a mixture of Upper West Side psychotherapists, liberal college students and cabinet makers. Funny how that can matter to people—the right to a job. I was only on unemployment once in my life, back in 1990 before going to work for Columbia and it was really hell on wheels. I say that as someone without a family and debts at the time. What is it like for a coal miner in West Virginia who hadn’t worked in five years, had no health insurance before Obamacare and was suffering from some debilitating illness? Would he trade his situation for that of a coal miner in East Germany who was guaranteed a job for life even if the Stasi was snooping on him?
The Wikipedia article on “The Lives of Others” mentions a film that made quite an impression on me when it first came out in 2003. It describes “Goodbye, Lenin” as a comedy, which doesn’t do it justice. Suffice it to say that is a film that honors “Ostalgie” and puts East German Communists in a light that struck me as sensitive to why many Germans became Communists, even if the project involved compromises with the revolutionary impulses that made them to join the party.
Good Bye, Lenin
posted to http://www.marxmail.org on January 14, 2004
It is 1989 and Communism is crumbling everywhere except in the heart and mind of Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass), a middle-aged Berlin resident who has a picture of Che Guevara on her bedroom wall and is fiercely loyal to party leader Erich Honecker.
Her son Alex (Daniel Brühl, 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 is heading toward a party celebration, she happens upon a police crackdown on anti-Communist protestors, including her son who is being thrown into the back of a truck in handcuffs. This 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 she will ever awake from the coma. 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.
Finally 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 in her bedroom back at home that is faithful to the Communist past. After elaborately preparing the bedroom with the clunky furniture and 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 Communist past that 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 “globalization” is not mentioned once in the film, an astute member of the audience might think of the French farmer José Bové who vandalized a Macdonalds for its encroachments on 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 Germany 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. He calls them assholes.
In the final scene of the film, as his mother is approaching death, he stages one last ruse that summarizes the sensibility of Wolfgang Becker, the film’s director and co-author (written with Bernd Lichtenberg). After she has discovered traces of the West during an unsupervised stroll in her neighborhood (Coca-Cola signs, BMW’s, etc.), they convince her that immigrants from West Germany have recently begin 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 that is 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 epitomized in a small museum in the town of Eisenhüttenstadt near the Polish border and 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 they 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 percent in regions like Eisenhüttenstadt. 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 “globalization” 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 a defunct 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 FDR intended that Germany be deindustrialized, demilitarized and–most importantly–denazified after the war, a goal shared by his partner Joseph Stalin. Then along came Harry Truman, who saw Communism as just another impediment to American hegemony. In violation of the Potsdam and Yalta agreements, Truman pushed for reindustrialization of West Germany under the Marshall Plan and the creation of a formal West German state.
Washington then abruptly ended denazification, leaving 640,000 war criminals unprosecuted, and canceled steps to break up the cartels that had provided much of Hitler’s economic and social base. Defying conventional notions of Stalin’s intractability, Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith confessed that “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 $10 billion in reparations, four-power control of the Ruhr Valley and vigorous denazification and permanent demilitarization. In exchange, they would accept free elections throughout Germany modeled 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.
(Good Bye, Lenin is scheduled to open in NY theaters at the end of February. It was the winner of the Best European Film at the Berlin Film Festival.)