Thursday, May 20, 2004

Tear me down

Last night my wife (aka Her Highness) and I saw the German film Good Bye Lenin. It was the second time I saw the film, the first time being in Mannheim with my friend Uli last year.

The film follows a family in East Berlin during the first year after the fall of the Berlin Wall as the two Germanies took tentative steps to reunite. The mother, who was left by her husband when he fled to the west, "married the Party"--she taught children to love the East German fatherland. Just before the Wall comes she sees her son Alex arrested in protests for freedom of the press. She suffers from a heart attack and falls into a coma. Germany changes around her. The old symbols of East Germany are taken down and are replaced by western consumerism. When she awakens, her family is warned that she cannot suffer from any shock and surprise. Alex decides that he must hide the truth about the fall of Honecker and the DDR from her. It puts him on a quest to find old brands of food, to produce fake television news programs, and to hide her with the apartment.

Alex confronts a world that is changing too rapidly. No one expresses loss for the old things that they had. But many of them feel disoriented as they are no longer needed for their labor. Furthermore, along with the western consumer goods, "Wessies" (West Germans who are unmoved by the loss of the everyday culture of the East) are taken up room in East Berlin. From her high-rise apartment the changes in Berlin cannot be seen: there are only other high-rises, and she has a clear view of the East German television tower (Fernsehturm) that was the symbol of progress. From up high, the city is still anonymous.

Progress cannot be hidden for long, and each new change must be explained by Alex through his fake TV programs, creating a counter-narrative in which East Germany opens itself up to teach the West about the society that they hand built--the Wall will no longer separate East Germans from West. Alex remarks that his fake DDR ended up being more like the East Germany he would have wanted, its end a more fitting death.

The film is a revision of German reunification. It is normally told that the Wall came down and Germans became one. Politically and economically, reunification was more complex. Helmut Kohl and the West Germans were arrogant, believing in the power of the Deutschmacht (a pun in which German power is associated with the German currency (Deutschmark)). Kohl did a number of things that seem reckless in hindsight:
  • Rather than negotiating unification, West Germany literally bought the East. This was so that the West would not be forced into any ideological compromises.

  • West Germany bought off the Red Army in order to send it home (perhaps a wise move).

  • West Germany bought East German currency at a rate of 1:1.

  • Kohl promised asylum to anyone who claimed German ancestry who lived in the USSR and Eastern Bloc.

  • Kohl promised to move the capital from Bonn to Berlin in order to show the commitment of the West to the East and to symbolize unity.

When reunification was formalized, Kohl said that all Germans would celebrate the anniversary of unity of Mallorca.

Kohl's reunification was too costly, and it hinders the German economy today. But this arrogance has persisted as Wessies care little for the problems of the Ossies (East Germans). The resulting division can be seen in the return of a socialist party for the east (PDS). The film shows that the speed of unification left many people behind, clinging to the culture of the East long after they had killed off communism by their own efforts. Something that was lost on the audience was that East Germany was a kind of consumer society. The Soviet Union used the East as a showplace of how great communism could be and that people under communism could have thing and be happy. In that respect East Germans were pampered with a rich consumer culture with cars and television, etc. Even when the "new Germans" admit that they prefer western products, they mourn not having the option of the cheaper East German variety. No one defends or resurrects communism, only the Germany that was left behind.


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