Goodbye Lenin: the uses of nostalgia

About the author
Julian Kramer is a member of openDemocracy's editorial team. He holds an MA in International Journalism from City University and a BA in East European Languages, Literatures and Regional Studies from UCL. His articles, news pieces and translations have appeared on openDemocracy, in The Independent, the Berliner Zeitung, and on n-tv, a German rolling news channel. Julian's main journalistic interests are migration issues, the developing world, EU enlargement, endangered peoples and British-German relations.

Germany + history + comedy? That sounds like an unlikely equation. In the mid-1990s, the German film industry was mired in a wave of best-selling but shallow comedies like Der bewegte Mann (Maybe, Maybe Not (1994)), directed by Sönke Wortmann, set in contemporary Germany and carrying no appeal to an audience beyond the borders of German-speaking countries. Run Lola Run (1999), directed by Tom Tykwer, opened the door for good commercial, contemporary German cinema with a much wider appeal. Goodbye Lenin has gone through that door and beyond.

The GDR: from reality into fantasy

The film’s young lead character Alexander (Daniel Brühl) works in a state-owned TV repair collective in East Berlin. We enter his life on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the spring of 1989, an official display of military might and allegiance to the Soviet ‘brother nation’. But Alexander, exemplary of a whole generation of young East Germans, could not be less interested. Politics provoke nothing but a yawn from him. Rather unwittingly, he gets caught up in a demonstration of dissidents calling for regime change and political reforms. When his mother Hanna (Katrin Sass), a faithful socialist, witnesses the police arresting Alexander, she has a heart attack and falls into a coma.

When Hanna miraculously awakes, the GDR is crumbling, the state leadership has just been forced to open the borders to West Germany, and a capitalist market model is rapidly replacing the state’s socialist economy. When the doctors tell Alexander that any undue excitement could have life-threatening consequences for his mother, he decides that he will protect Hanna from knowledge of any of these changes.

He thus embarks on an exhilarating project to get hold of the East German groceries which are becoming increasingly rare and for which Hanna so yearns: Mokkafix instant coffee, Globus peas or Spreewald gherkins. These GDR brands, otherwise devalued by an onslaught of western products and much hated by Alexander and his sister Ariane (Maria Simon), tremendously gain in emotional value for them as symbols of the old life to which Hanna clings.

Alexander’s quest to save his mother’s little socialist world provides many slapstick opportunities – for example, when he organises a birthday celebration for Hanna with Young Pioneers in prim uniforms singing kitschy socialist tunes, and Ariane’s new western boyfriend confusing Young Pioneer with German miner and Hitler Youth etiquette.

The generic celebration of a distinct East German cultural identity is often dismissed as Ostalgia. But what makes this version of it acceptable even to a ‘capitalist’ West German audience around the world today, is the fact that director Wolfgang Becker has depoliticised the plot. This is a film not about failed political trajectories, but about how personal emotions and family life help preserve space for humanity away from the tightly-controlled public realm.

The echo of an evasion

At the same time, Alexander’s loving project to keep the German Democratic Republic alive for his mother does have a playful political element. Hanna asks for a television set to watch the news, and Alexander makes use of his new job with a western satellite-dish retailer and gets his workmate Denis (Florian Lukas) to produce GDR-style prime-time news videos, which are then beamed into Hanna’s living room. In a reversal of reality they feature westerners flocking to the GDR because they have realised its socialist potential. They also show Sigmund Jähn, the only East German in outer space, as Erich Honecker’s successor.

In these fantasy news items Alexander and Denis create the humane German Democratic Republic of their personal dreams, a vision that is in stark contrast to the reality of a state which spied on its citizens’ every move, kept political prisoners behind bars for decades under unspeakable conditions, and was responsible for shooting dead dozens of refugees attempting to leave the GDR.

The celebration of the private socialist ‘Mother Courage’ Hanna only becomes possible, of course, because Becker’s comedy leaves out some crucial elements of East German public life.

There is no mention of Bautzen, the GDR’s infamous torture prison for political dissidents; nor any room for the emerging neo-Nazi movement, apart from a swastika in the house elevator. And the bitter disappointment felt by so many former GDR citizens after 1989 – the “flourishing landscapes” which Helmut Kohl had promised them did not materialise – is barely noticeable. There is only one obligatory Jammerossi (moaning East German) in the shape of an ageing, unemployed neighbour.

This inner tension is also evident in the way that Becker consciously sticks to a family narrative rather than losing himself in an embarrassing eulogy to the East German state. However, the uncertain balance between private and public is also a weakness in the film, for the plot makes the political division of Germany play an important part in the disintegration of the family.

Alexander’s father, who has long ago left the GDR for West Germany, was punished by East German authorities for not being a member of the Socialist Unity Party. Hanna failed to follow him with the children, and, once seriously ill, she regrets this failure as the biggest mistake of her life. She meets him one last time. This missing father figure has insufficient screen space to leave more than the taste of a contrivance.

A light from the east

Yet this very elevation of the private lives of ordinary East Germans has its merits in the context of a unified Germany where Westerners have ignored these private Eastern narratives for too long. The German Democratic Republic of 1989 was long an exotic, far-off country for many young West Germans. It certainly did not have much of a bearing on the writer of this review, a West German from the rich south born in 1977. After all the GDR had been an independent state since 1949, and barbed wire and heavily-armed border posts did not seem particularly attractive to a teenager. My parents might fleetingly mention it in a conversation, but the GDR was otherwise a mental no man’s land in everyday life.

When the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989 it was an event that my parents were watching on the news. I did not understand what was going on. I think part of it was to do with the fact that people around me were rather sceptical about the prospect of a swift reunification of the two German states. Patriotism was seen as a suspicious remnant of the militarist tradition that ended in the terror and genocide of the Third Reich.

However, the iconography employed in Goodbye Lenin, all those real socialist fashion monstrosities, that Space Age triumphalism (child Alexander dreamed about becoming a cosmonaut) and those sour bespectacled East German newsreaders still seemed almost tantalising in their familiarity to me. And so here I was sitting in a London cinema realising that the past of young East Germans had become my own. And not only one’s own childhood. Numerous Ostalgie parties across the country bear witness to the commercial cult status that socialist uniformity and provincialism has achieved. They celebrate such traditionally positive GDR values as ‘neighbourly support’ and the art of improvising in a shortage economy.

So that nostalgic sensation does not apply to former citizens of the German Democratic Republic alone. GDR objects of everyday life have achieved a more general recognition and even respect in the reunified Germany of the new millennium.

sandmanEastern version of Sandman

Nowadays, for example, children across Germany watch the Eastern version of the evening ‘sandman’ on TV, Germany’s unofficial marker for children’s bedtime. An episode of the East German sandman in Goodbye Lenin sees him taking off to the moon in a spaceship. In a unified Germany, the childlike ideals of the small East German socialist republic, epitomised in its quest to conquer outer space, have become respectable again.

Goodbye Lenin, in the final analysis, has achieved what political reunification, often experienced as a top-down remodelling of East Germany into a capitalist mould, has failed to do: creatively facilitated a mental reunification of Germans led from the East, where Westerners are able to acknowledge the human values of the sunken East German republic without feeling complicit with its bankrupt political system.

The animated form of an idealised German Democratic Republic serves an important purpose: it can offer solace to the frustrated hopes of many East Germans. And in doing so, it reaches beyond their own experience to include their fellow-German Wessies in both an enlarged and a shared national experience. This is the emotional, and also the ‘political’, quality of the film.