Good Bye Lenin!
Faking Real Existing Socialism: some thoughts on Good Bye Lenin!
Good Bye Lenin!, a film directed by Wolfgang Becker — which screened in both independent and mainstream British cinemas in the summer of 2003 — involves an East Berlin family and the startling political events which unfold around them in 1989-1990. The central figures in the story are Alex (played by Daniel Brühl), a largely apathetic twenty year old, more interested in drinking than politics; his sister Ariane (Maria Simon); and, holding the family together, their single parent, Christiane (Katrin Sass) who remains an apparently devoted, though not uncritical, supporter of East German socialism. We are told that the father and husband to this family abandoned them for another woman in the West some ten years earlier. The core relationship of the film is between the mother and the son, and the story focuses on the power of such a relationship but also on the lies and deceptions that sometimes are driven by these bonds. However Good Bye Lenin! is not just about personal relations, it is also a film that examines how momentous political, economic and social changes reverberate around and through the lives of 'ordinary' people. Although some of those involved in the making of the film have attempted to separate the love story from its specific political and historic context, that context remains inseparable to our viewing and understanding of the film.
The film revolves around what several reviewers have noted is a re-working of the story of Rip Van Winkle. On the night of the forthieth anniversary of the creation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Christiane sees Alex at a demonstration that is violently broken up by the police. As a result she has a heart attack and falls into a coma. In the eight months that she is unconscious, events in the wider world move on apace. Borders with the West are opened and political, economic and social change affect every aspect of everyday life. Alex becomes a satellite dish installer rather than a TV repair man. His sister Ariane gives up her university course in economics to be a waitress in a drive-through fast food restaurant and with her new boyfriend transforms the typically East German look of the family flat with all the trappings of Western life. When Christiane unexpectedly begins to recover from the coma, Alex is warned by her doctors that any major shock will kill her, so he resolves to keep from her the knowledge of the changes in the world outside by re-creating the GDR in his bed-ridden mother's room. Initially this means re-decorating the room in its original style and finding (with much difficulty) the old-style foodstuffs such as coffee, pickles, and peas that his mother knew and enjoyed. However the scale of the operation and deception soon mounts as the changes in the outside world increase. Alex persuades his mother's former friends and employers to act as if nothing had changed, hires school students to sing Young Pioneers' songs, and collaborates with friends at the satellite company to edit and fake news and current affairs programmes. In the end Alex has created, at least within his mother's bedroom, a reality which is at odds not only with the rapid Westernisation which is going on in the outside world but also with the repressive state that was the old GDR.
The appearance of the party slogan 'quality supplied to all by all' in the first few minutes of the film, clearly introduces one of the central ironic themes of the story by which we contrast the utopian rhetoric of the GDR with the reality of life under 'state socialism'. But at the same time it alerts the audience to contrast of the values of one system which, if only rhetorically, promotes equality and the collective good against the changes which are to come which give precedence to the individual and the consumer over society and security. It is this latter conflict which has seen Good Bye Lenin! and its success in Germany, being talked about as part of the phenomenon of 'Ostalgie' or nostalgia for the values and certainties of the former East German state. On one level 'ostalgie' represents an easily understood sentimental longing for the past, exemplified by the popular television chat show 'The GDR Show' presented by the former East German ice-skating hero Katarina Witt, proposals for a GDR theme park and the fetishisation of East European food, clothes and other goods such as the previously-ridiculed Trabant car. At a another level, it also suggests that many people across Europe feel an unease with some aspects of the triumphant consumer capitalism which now dominates their lives so completely and regret the total rejection of some of the more positive values and stability of East German life, particularly as regards employment, health care and social welfare. This current fascination for looking back may explain some of the film's popularity but it would not do justice to the breadth of the West-German-raised Becker's vision to reduce it to a piece of comic nostalgia or romantic fiction.
Certainly the film does provide a critique of both the GDR's socialism and of Western capitalism, or more particularly the unquestioning replacement of all the collectivist values of the old society with those of consumerism. The brutality and lack of freedom of the old regime is revealed in the details of the lives of Christiane and her husband, and most explicitly in the beating giving to the protestors by the police. However this is not a film about life in the GDR but about the changes that happened after the wall came down, and as such as much of its focus and satirical eye is directed to the corporate takeover of the East by the West. The obvious targets are the lack of security in the job market and also the changing social relations and priorities of the new society. Emphasis is given to the replacement of the old values and iconography by the icons of consumerism, notably the appearance of advertising for cigarettes and Coca-Cola, and of Ariane giving up university to work in Burger King. Much of what was valued in the old society is now deemed worthless, as symbolised by Alex's throwing his mother's savings of East German Marks into the wind. In her first, and unsupervised, journey into the outside world Christiane comes across several confusing signs of the change all around her: the nazi graffiti in the lift, christian iconography, the presence of westerners and IKEA. Her confusion and the dream-like nature of her walk culminates in the visual centre-piece of the film when a disembodied statute of Lenin flies passed carried by helicopter, seemingly to wave her farewell.
Nowhere are the new power relations between the East and West more clearly symbolised than in the first meeting between the Western father and his estranged Eastern family, when he is unknowingly served at Burger King by his daughter. Despite further meetings, the emotional and political distance between the two sides of the family remains unresolved and irresolvable, and so, the film suggests, does the divide between East and West.
This is not a new observed phenomenon — other East European films in recent years have told similar stories — nor is it simply nostalgia. In many films it is the old, pensioners, who feel particularly adrift and unsupported in the new society, and there are examples of this here, but in Good Bye Lenin! it is also the young like Alex and his friends who are ambivalent about the changes. While the West offers opportunities and freedoms gratefully accepted by the young in particular, the film also suggests that many — whilst not wishing to return to the past — feel a sense of loss and uncomfortable and unrepresented in the change all around them. For historians, and particularly historians of communism, it reminds us that to be weighed against the negatives of those societies, there were also in the eyes of those who lived in them some benefits. This does not mean that these benefits outweighed the faults, which clearly they did not, but it does mean that the prelonged existence of such states and the residual popularity of their ideological underpinnings should not only be understood in terms of repression and coercion but also to some extent of popular consent and support.
All through, the film offers the possibility that though GDR socialism was deeply and fatally flawed by its brutal repressive nature, lack of basic freedoms and control of individual lives, it was also a system that might be humanised and reformed by embracing its original values of equality and collective security. This is shown in part by the continued but not uncritical faith of the mother in the system and in the clever, witty letters of complaint which she composes for friends and neighbours suggesting how the useless and unsuitable consumer products provided by the state might be improved to meet the needs of its citizens. (The fact that the letters she writes after she awakes from her coma are used by her friends to mock the inadequate products of Western companies, suggests that perhaps mass capitalist production is not so different from socialist production in its one-size fits all mentality.)
Fundamentally Alex also offers the possibility of change or at least of rescuing something fundamentally positive from the old system. In no sense can Alex be described as a supporter of the old state. He is alienated from the politics of the old guard and cynical about his mother's beliefs. He attends, though more inadvertently than through active commitment, a demonstration against the Wall and the old regime. Arrested and beaten up by the police, he becomes aware of the state's lies and malicious interference in his parents lives. However it is clear that he does not know exactly what he wants from these changes and he certainly does not uncritically accept or welcome the 'freedoms' which come from the West.
Although initially he recreates the GDR for his mother's benefit, as the justification for his actions become increasingly tenuous, he appears more and more to be doing it for himself. In a 'western' life which is rapidly accelerating and over stimulated, the flat and the old GDR becomes an oasis of calm and the only place where he can sleep. Furthermore the need to respond to the way the outside changes are inevitably encroaching on his mother's sense of reality leads him to re-make the GDR and socialism anew, inventing a society as he would have like it to have become. In his last broadcast, Alex signals both the changes in the world and his own utopian views to his mother by replacing the resigned Erich Honecker with a new President who — speaking from Alex's script — seeks to describe a socialism that continues to inspire with the hope of a better world: by offering more than the shallow consumerism of capitalism, and the promise of a a system which no longer walls people in, but rather truly sets them free.
Alex's choice of the former cosmonaut-turned-taxi driver Sigmund Jähn to be his fictional president, returns us to a theme which runs through the film. Of course, space technology and exploration was area in which the East was able to portray itself as competing and on occasions out-doing the West, and was a traditional symbol of the scientific triumph of socialism. But also for those who had been a child as Alex had during the era of the great space adventures, it also represented something more uncomplicatedly brave and quite literally out of this world, beyond the reality in which they lived. For Alex, the astronaut's view of earth from space allows him to see life as something more than self-interest, narrow political advantage and trivial individualism, and thus makes Jähn the perfect spokesman to annunciate Alex's vision of how to build the socialist state that should have been.
However, once again, this is a deeply problematic position. In many ways, what Alex does in creating a better but fictional socialism replays the lies and deceptions of the previous regime which he seeks to reform. This is particularly true, and most evident, in the manipulation of the media and the news. So Alex justifies the appearance of Coca-Cola advertising across the city by faking a news broadcast in which the GDR claims to have been the real inventors of the drink and he explains the appearance of West Germans in East Berlin as refugees from the soulless excesses of capitalism generously welcomed by the socialist state. Though these are very funny rewritings of history, as if glimpsing a parallel world through a looking glass, they also echo the darker, more sinister media manipulations and lies of a totalitarian state. So while Alex suggests ways of imagining a more human socialism, his actions also forces us to ask what is the point of his socialism if it is not a reality? In one sense, the declaration in favour of a socialism without walls, mixed with footage of the Berlin Wall coming down should be an empowering and inspiring one but the feeling is undercut by the deception and unreality involved. In the end Alex has becomes increasingly desperate and dictatorial in his attempts to maintain the alternate reality of his creation; cajoling, paying and eventually blackmailing others to take part in his pretence. Significantly it is his Russian girlfriend, Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) who tries to make him aware of the dangerous nature of his obsession and seeks to tell Christiane the truth before she dies.
Here lies the central concern of Good Bye Lenin! As the film develops we are prompted to question what we know and what those who love one another tell each other. In essence it is a film about truth and lies, reality and perception, memory and the construction of memories. It is both about family relations and about the political and historical contexts within which lives are led — the lies and distortions that disfigure the society are replicated in lies and distortions in even the closest relations. In the course of the film, Christiane reveals that her life and her devotion to the GDR had been based on a lie. She had told the children that their father had run away with another woman to the West and had never sought to contact them while she remained true to her family and the state. In reality her husband, a doctor, had left the East because of the difficulties he faced over refusing to join the party and she had meant to follow. However because of the fear of what the authorities might do and of being separated from the children, she remained in the East, hid her husband's unopened letters and concocted the story of his abandonment of the family. Staying in the East, she reveals to her children, had been the biggest regret of her life. Immediately we must question what we know of her commitment to socialism — did she stay because of fear or commitment? What do we make of her knowledge of the persecution of her husband because of his political beliefs, or of the interference in her own career as her teacher because of the state's suspicion of her beliefs and her associations?
Again the doubt surrounding her attachment to the GDR, forces us to re-assess the justification for Alex's distortion of reality. If his mother does not require the distortion, then who is Alex doing it for? This is even more pertinent in the final scene, when he conducts the whole pretence of the transformation of the GDR into 'socialism without walls' despite the fact that his mother, though now near death and confused, seems to be aware that it is all a fake. In the end the distortions of political systems forces each of the protagonists to express their love and devotion for the other by their complicity in a series of lies and deceptions — a 'truth' which explains the sadness and tragedy which pervades this bitter-sweet comedy.
Andrew Flinn, University of Westminster
Dina Iordanova, 'East of Eden', Sight & Sound, August 2003.
For a overview of the current fashion for the GDR in Germany see Ben Aris, 'How the GDR Became Cool', The Guardian, 24 July 2003.
Iordanova, Sight & Sound, 2003.
Communist History Network Newsletter, Issue 15, Autumn 2003
Available on-line since January 2004