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Ostalgie (December 24, 2003)

It may be that the interest in and affection for life in the old East Germany is a result of the current German “crisis” — the climbing unemployment, the catastrophic shape of the pension system, and the other death throes of the Welfare State. In the Old Days of East Germany all was guaranteed: a job, a pension, daycare, healthcare. The main catch, of course, was that civil liberties were not part of the package.

Many older Germans who lived under the socialist system and worked tremendously hard to build it up now yearn for the old times. They feel the tentacles of retrenchment and privatization wrapping around their ankles and climbing up their calves and they are getting scared. Many others are, too.

German has the word Nostalgie, just as English has “nostalgia.” Within the last couple of years the language has spun off a new word from Nostalgie simply by dropping the first letter: “Ostalgie.” “Ost” means “East” in German, and so “Ostalgie” means nostalgia for the east, nostalgia for the GDR. 

Ostalgie is not simply a feeling. It is a trend. There are now Ostalgie sections in bookstores where you can buy books and maps that lead you through East Berlin and point you to those spots where you can indulge your penchant for the old-style Socialist look and feel of things. Every day on television one can see retrospectives on the political and cultural life of the GDR. The GDR insignia is also big, and the price of GDR memorabilia has climbed steeply.

The best place to begin splashing around in the sometimes syrupy waters of Ostalgie is to go to the movies: many of the most popular German films in recent years have dealt with life before, after and during the Fall of the Wall. 

My chosen jumping off point for a first investigation of cinematic Nostalgie was the Potsdamer Platz. In pre-war Berlin, the Postdamer Platz was the center of the city. In World War II it was devastated by aerial bombardment, and after the war became the border between the Russian and American sectors. From 1961 until 1989 it sat directly in No-Man’s-Land, the vast open stretch of grass between the outer and inner Berlin Walls. (People talk about the Wall, but there were in fact two: one fencing in the East and one keeping out the West. In some places the No Man’s Land between these inner and outer walls was several hundred meters across.)

Then the Wall came down and soon plans were underway to remake the Potsdamer Platz as the new center, the meeting point of the eastern and western parts of the city. 

(So large is this No Man’s Land that the work of filling it in continues. The still-to-be built new American Embassy will symbolically stand here, just to the north of the Monument to the Murdered German Jews, also in the former No Man’s Land. Many people marvel at the renaissance of monument-making and building that flourishes where the Wall once ran, and it is certainly true that No-Man’s-Land is a massive show-place for the newest international architecture. This civic blank slate is seen to be unique to Berlin. I disagree: almost every American city has balkanizing No-Man’s-Lands in the form of interstate highways.)

An all-star team of international architects led by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers was assembled to design the sprawling complexes of the new Potsdamer Platz. It was finished five years ago. The only remnant of the old Berlin to be seen at the Potsdamer Platz is an 18th-century wine house, the Wein Haus Huth, which survived the bombs because it was built soundly enough to withstand the weight of all those casks of wine. It is now an upscale wine-bistro. 

The Postdamer Platz tries hard to be futuristic, which means that it is exceedingly corporate. The names say it all: the complex is divided between the Sony Center and Daimler-Chrysler Center. The concave highrise of the German Railway building, which towers next the Sony Center, has see-through glass so that one can enjoy the sight of all these stories and stories of corporate ants at their work stations. The Berlin Film Museum is also here and a bar called Billy Wilder’s. The Sony Style Center guards the main entrance along the Leipziger Strasse: this place is rented out for corporate parties where people in cool eyeglasses drink brightly colored drinks and pose around museum-like display cases with the latest and most expensive artifacts on offer from Sony. One can stand outside and watch these parties: such spectacles are usually more entertaining than going to the movies at one of the 20 Sony Center screens.

The Sony Center itself has a massive tent that rises up a couple of hundred feet and tilts to one side — a typical bit of post-modern architectural ego on display. The tent’s slatted covering lets the rain in at erratic intervals, and the floodlights shining upward change color (pink, blue, green, white) every few minutes, just like they do at Niagara Falls. All the buildings of the Sony Center face in on this central pavilion. Paradoxically this main civic space of the Potsdamer Platz is both vast and claustrophobic. This may have something to do with the fact that you can see those corporate guys looking down on you while they manage their global portfolios. The point of the Sony Center is to be seen and to be watched, and the various societal factions which mix here seem to enjoy a bit of voyeurism and modish exhibitionism, especially when forgiven by such surreal light sources. Everyone is both anonymous and a star at the Potsdamer Platz.

It was to the Potsdamer Platz that I went to see Goodbye Lenin last spring and again last fall. Goodbye Lenin is the most successful German film of all time, outperforming even Titanic at box-offices here. It is a film that both capitalized on Ostalgie and defined it anew. 

In October the film made its way to England and, not surprisingly, has been extremely successful there as well. The next movie market to conquer is the most coveted — that of the United States. You heard it here first: Goodbye Lenin will win this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film — nominations to be announced at the end of January.

This prediction is not meant to be an endorsement of its qualities as a film, but only a recognition of the obvious fact that the so-called Academy will not be able to resist the humorous, sentimental brew of Ostalgie the film serves up. The film’s unparalleled success here in Germany, and the success I predict it will enjoy in America, has to do not only with the cleverness of the script and its realization, but with comic and hazily maudlin portrayal of life in the East. It is a funny and excessively poignant film which is also very palatable, not to say intoxicating, for the winners of the Cold War. 

The film takes place between the Fall of the Wall in November of 1989 to Re-Unification in October of 2000. At the beginning of the film the history of the central family is presented through their home movies from the 1970s and other news footage of Socialist successes as seen through the eyes of a young boy, our hero is Alex. Alex loves rockets and space, and watches enthralled as state television brings into his socialist-styled apartment the space-flight of the first East German cosmonaut. 

We also learn that his father has escaped to the West and left his family behind. In reaction, the mother has become a fanatical supporter of the East German regime — a model socialist mother, who is recognized for her dedication by the party.

After this prelude — an idealized boyhood view of socialist progress — we fast-forward to November 1989. Alex is now played by Daniel Bruehl, Germany’s leading heart-throb actor. Alex in Goodbye Lenin is and probably always will be Bruehl’s signature role. Alex is now disaffected with the socialist myth and participates in the anti-government marches of November, 1989, during Gorbachev’s visit to Berlin to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the GDR.

The march is disrupted by the police, and it just so happens that Alex’s mother, played by the famous German actress Katrina Sass, is passing by in a taxi on the way to receive an award for her services to the state. Shocked, she not only sees the devastating vision of her own son taking part in the protest, but then watches as he is clubbed down by the police. 

She faints and the next we see her she is in a coma. The doctor informs Alex, just released from police detention, that his mother could die at any moment. Some weeks later she miraculously wakes up from her coma, but the doctor cautions Alex that any further shock to her system could be fatal. But during her weeks in the coma, the East German state she so faithfully served has collapsed, and Alex fears that that news that the Wall has fallen could kill her.

Now comes the funniest part of the film. The mother is confined to her bed in her socialist tower-block apartment, as Alex ransacks the city for old socialist brands — pickles, sauerkraut, liqueur, etc. — which she so loved and which have been suddenly swept aside by the tidal wave of western products. The world outside is changing so quickly and irrevocably that each day it becomes harder to simulate the ways things were, even in the controlled environment of the mother’s bedroom.

Of course the state news is now gone, so Alex and his friend Denis, whom Alex met at his new job working for a Western cable company, have to make fake socialist-style news programs which they broadcast through closed-circuit into the mother’s television. 

Inevitably, of course, the mother is confronted with information that does not accord with her Cold War view of the world: through her bedroom window she sees a huge Coca-Cola banner unfurled from a socialist tower-block; because of a transmission glitch her television brings her footage of people streaming over the Wall.

Our hero and his friend must explain these unexplainable things. Their two-man, ad hoc propaganda team is the best thing in the movie, not only because of the hilarious way they explain away these things, but because of the gullibility of the mother in accepting their explanations.

The problem with the film is the family drama in which these trenchant comic insights are embedded. The absent father has a new, young family and Alex eventually finds out about them and visits their luxurious house in a fancy part of West Berlin. This is all exceedingly heart-wrenching.

Coincidentally, Alex is transported to this Oedipal meeting in a taxi driven by that same East German cosmonaut Alex so admired as a child. After his confrontation with his father, Alex buys a DDR uniform for the cosmonaut at a flea market where old DDR stuff is being sold off for nothing, and enlists him for his final fake news broadcast, a paean to the DDR, the ideal DDR that his mother had believed in: this last video informs the mother that the people coming over that Wall were streaming into the East, that Socialism won the Cold War through force of conviction. The mother’s lifelong political dreams have come true.

In this culminating moment, the filmmakers allow German audiences to indulge their own idealized vision of the past and laugh at it at the same time: they can have their Küchen and eat it, too. Even if all was not perfect, at least in DDR their were dreams of a just society. This utopian vision of the film takes on its own celluloid reality, a reality that on a mass-scale obliterates more genuine confrontations with the vexed past of the divided Germany. The film is even now being used and marketed in Germany for educational purposes, presenting its vision of the DDR as legitimate history.

The movie’s sentimentalization of history also constitutes a large part of the film’s influence on and boost to Ostalgie: the past always looks better on film — the interiors sexier, the people sexier, the products sexier, life sexier. 

I recommend the film. It is clever and funny and well-done, but it also stinks of redemption. This is blind to ideology and style, and it is always fatal.

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