East Germany in Wolfgang Becker film «Goodbye Lenin! »: Does the movie paint a positive or negative picture of life in communist East Germany? East Germany, its demise relayed through the mass media of recent history, has in popular consciousness been posited as negative, a corrupt bulwark of the last dying days of Communism in Eastern Europe, barren and silent. The other Germany to its West, it’s citizens free, was striding confidently ahead into the millennium.
Recent cinema has sought to examine re-unification, the Wolfgang Becker film «Goodbye Lenin! » (2003), a recent example of such an investigation into the past through cinema. In this essay I will look at the film and the narrative techniques it uses, probing whether it portrays the East German nation as positive or negative, concluding that though many negatives are identified, some positives are deduced from Huneker’s state. I will also consider why, in recent times, East Germans have come to regard their former state with nostalgia.
Not a doom laden, emphatically political treatise on the reunification of East and West Germany but a touching and sometimes comedic insight into the gargantuan changes impacting on the small scale; day to day life as experienced by an East German family, Christiane Kerner and her two children Alex and Ariane. Awaking from a coma, Alex fears his mother’s condition may worsen if she learns of re-unification, going to increasingly elaborate lengths in maintaining the illusion of the GDR’s omniscience. Becker’s stance as to reunification is ambivalent throughout, the film’s concerns not didactic but subtly relayed.
How the personal and political interweave is skillfully constructed by Becker, assessing the extent to which the society we live within affects us, how far its changing social landscape impacts our private one? Goodbye Lenin! (2003) appropriates the individual as bound to his environment, threaded, through strong cultural codes, to his neighbor. Regardless of the system, communist or capitalist, and though our goals may deviate, we are all pursuing happiness and comfort, the tools used to attain this products of that society.
That said, it is immediately legible whereabouts Becker wishes us to view the East German state as wholly negative, and he does this through several key scenes. At the film’s opening, we learn of the first East German shot into space, surely an apotheosis of what a state can achieve, its grasp extending to the stars. But behind the curtain of this vast achievement we can see how it is brought about through the utter bending of citizens to the states will. Alex’s mother Christiane, who we first assume the innocent of the piece, is interrogated by the Stasi for her husband has fled the country.
We learn he was unable to live with a state he detested, the ordeal of the interrogation so testing for Christiane it sends her into a coma. Her husband and the children’s father absent, she finds a kinship with the state, now one of its most vociferous supporters. The absence of the father is particularly imbued with purpose. Later, Becker seeks to equate the death of communism with the return of the father for the two are so inextricably connected. Only when the German Democratic Republic (GDR) is laid to rest can this dark chapter in which fathers left itself too end, back now from the West to make amends and seek forgiveness.
The contrast between what the state would like its citizens, and the wider world, to believe through image and rhetoric, and the actual reality inside the East German state, is made stark. For example, as the celebration of the feats made by the GDR is celebrated outside his window and broadcast on television, Honecker and Gorbachev in attendance, Alex sits inside his bedroom, a red flag adorning his window, its shadow protruding his bedroom wall. Alex is unconcerned, not aware even of the procession occurring outside his home, no regard for its rhetoric for it bears no relationship to the reality he lives.
This is some kind of privacy achieved for him, so contrary to what the state deems acceptable. Later, Alex makes his way through the streets of Berlin joining a mass protest against the government. There is no tolerance for this and Alex is beaten and arrested amidst a forceful assault on the protestors by the state police. It is here where Alex’s mother, such a zealous supporter of the state, draped conspicuously in a significant deep red, is patronized by the police and ordered to go home. She witnesses the suppression of her son, and falls down into a coma as all around her chaos rages.
The disintegration of the state parallels her own physical meltdown, the awareness of the brutality discussed above triggering her relapse. Other positives of the GDR’s supplanting can be deduced. Alex partners a West German colleague at his new job, the two establishing a close relationship that would not have been possible until recently. Germany now reunited; the streets of the East resemble that of a rainbow, a kaleidoscope of color not evidenced before. The hustle is ongoing as new replaces old, frenetic activity and the destruction of the monuments of yesteryear.
Lenin’s statue, one of the most memorable uses of symbolism in the film, is carried off through the streets by helicopter, the only person noticing the significance of this the veteran socialist who has ventured out of her apartment building for the first time since before re-unification. The passing of epochs also brings about the passage of truth, as the family later learns the facts from the Mother regarding their father’s desertion to the West. The mother it turns out, and not just Alex, have both constructed fiction in order to conceal a painful truth, much like the state.
Becker does though identify positive elements of the East German State, it’s dissolving bringing about very unfortunate circumstances for some of its citizens. The Kerner family has never known materialism or the lure of extravagant wealth and the prevailing of the West opens up such possibilities, capitalism transforming all before it. Alex’s sister Ariane, for example, relinquishes her laborious (as she sees it) status as a University student in exchange for a job serving takeaway food at a Burger King restaurant.
It is with such story devices that Becker asks whether the diminution of the GDR is beneficial to its citizens. The sister will undoubtedly make more money now, but in the long term, without a degree and treasured University experience. The lure of a better way of life also causes many of the doctors at the hospital housing Alex’s mother to flee to the West, not in search of freedom, but better paid jobs and more comforting circumstances. The difficulty in adapting to changing circumstances occupies the heart of the film.
We witness Alex’s elderly neighbor frequently complaining that Germany now no longer cares for its Eastern citizens, now a burden and perceived as lazy by Western standards. ‘There are also complaints that the Germans in the east want prosperity handed to them on a plate, whereas in the west affluence was only gained through many years of hard work’ A whole way of life suddenly supplanted by new ideals and practices will not yield quietly, the process of adjustment hazardous and painful. It is this re-adjustment process that Alex shields from his mother.
Where he can find joy and excitement in all that this new Germany has to offer, she has been subject to the GDR’s strict regime since he was a child, the predicted death of her awakening to re-unification concluded by noting the zeal in which she supports the GDR. The children posit the extremity of change as a personal affront to their mother, so close is the conflation of the internal and external. Becker masterfully establishes the children as paradigms of modernity, the mother as past, her brittle mortality plain to see.
The West long since the subject of Americanization, unification brings about its traversing of the East, its turn now to experience Americana. The film then purports to illuminate the negative aspects of the new capitalist system, initially welcomed, later less enthusiastically so. What is made clear is that the social construct of the GDR, because of its restrictions on private wealth and public expression, harnessed a deep sense of togetherness felt by families. The GDR period now being looked back on as a more frugal, simpler time, when communities readily came together to share what they had, thus seeming to live by a more ‘humane’ set of values than is possible in the hustle and bustle of capitalism. The totalitarianism of the GDR is not ignored, some of the sentimentalism of the film not a skirting over of the unpleasantness of the GDR but a celebration of the love and togetherness practiced by a family in spite of such restrictive circumstances.
Full employment and housing for all almost a given in the GDR, the sudden transition to life as experienced in the West, a protean economy and a lot less job security, was daunting and insecure following the initial euphoria, the state now not as malevolent, but also less benevolent. The film is greatly informed by recent nostalgia for the GDR, revisionism of life in the East totally contrary to reality, made by those who lived in such conditions, informed by their resentment of modernity.
The film proceeds to examine exactly why the GDR has resurfaced as a safer, simpler and more patriarchal friend in the eyes of many East Germans. Alex’s construction of the socialist state for his unsuspecting mother, his re-designing of the house to how it was before the influx of goods from the GDR and his hunting of Spreewald pickles an expression of how he would have liked the GDR to have really been, re-aligning his memory of that state from afar. ‘The GDR I built for my mother was becoming more and more the GDR that I would have liked to have’
Goodbye Lenin! (2003) illuminates both the positive and negative aspects of life in East Germany, overwhelmingly condemning the latter. It does however also convey the difficulty endured by ordinary people in adjusting to a new, Western, way of life, the restraints experienced by the conditions imposed by the German Democratic Republic substantially responsible for this, an economic dependency on the State and later an emotional attachment fermented through its former inhabitants alienating initiation with capitalist Western democracy.
If movie refrains from showing the up most horror of life in East Germany in vivid detail by opting to examine why in recent years it has been de-emphasized, it has paved the way for a more meticulous and exacting probe of the Stasi state in contemporary cinema through devastating films such as The Lives of Others (2007), it’s greed, jealousy, paranoia and corruption laid bare. Deep in the shadows though sits some kind of fractured humanity to be one day brought out into a troubled, confused but finally hopeful landscape that is modern day Germany, reconciling past and present and the challenges of the future.
Where Schlondorff, Wenders, Herzog, Fassbinder and Kluge once investigated the extremities of the German character and the Americana that infested West German culture through the New German Cinema of the late 60s, 70s and early 80s, the Germany of today has through its cinema acknowledged past hardships but with a more positive emphasis placed on the possibilities of forgiveness, redemption and hope for what can be made of tomorrow. Works Cited Ardagh, John. Germany and the Germans. After Unification. New Revised Edition ed. Bristoll: Penguin Books, 1998. Print. “East Germany. ” Wikipedia. org. RFE/RL East German Subject Files.
Open Society Archives. Web. 02 Nov. 2009. ;http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/East_Germany;. Fauth, Jurgen. “Goodbye, Lenin! Rip van Winkle and the Wall. ” Worldfilm. about. com. The New York Times Company. Web. 12 Nov. 2009. ;http://worldfilm. about. com/cs/germanfilms/fr/goodbyelenin. htm;. Kruts, Martha. A Reversal of Fortunes? Women, work and change in East Germany. New ed. Hartford: Berghahn Books, 2000. Print. Kulish, Nicholas. “In East Germany, a Decline as Stark as a Wall. ” Nytimes. com. 18 June 2009. Web. 3 Nov. 2009. ;http://www. nytimes. com/2009/06/19/world/europe/19germany. html;.