Eastward Ho!


Good Bye, Lenin!

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, March 15, 2004


The German hit "Good Bye, Lenin!" is a well-made sentimental farce with a strikingly unsexy theme -- a young man's concern for his ailing mother -- but it's more interesting as a social phenomenon. In Germany, it's the all time German-made box office champ, a distinction achieved by being both the beneficiary and promoter of the "Ostalgia" fad: nostalgia for the late and, one would have hoped, unlamented puppet state of East Germany.

Besides all the usual spying and lying, the unique accomplishment of East German Communism was turning Prussians into shoddy craftsmen. Even fifteen years later, Easterners remain significantly less productive than Westerners.

Yet, life in the German consumer paradise is now so boring that trendy young people from the posh Rhineland rent dilapidated two-cylinder Trabants to putter around East Berlin, admiring the Stalinist architectural monstrosities and stopping at recently opened boutiques that carry only the crud manufactured under the old regime.

The West German-born writer-director Wolfgang Becker hit upon an unoriginal but serviceable plot gimmick for evoking Ostalgia. When West Germany lures away young Alex's doctor father, his schoolteacher mother pledges her troth to the Socialist Fatherland. She devotes her abundant energies to organizing Young Pioneer patriotic sing-alongs and penning sarcastic but socially constructive letters to garment factories chiding their inability to make clothes that fit actual human beings: "We East Berliners will just have to work harder to make ourselves as short and square as you clearly believe we should be."

In October 1989, the Soviet Empire is teetering, and the now 20-year-old son is marching in a protest when the Stasi goons fall on him with their billy clubs. Passing by, Alex's mother sees her beloved son being bludgeoned by the representatives of the state she adores. She suffers a massive coronary and lapses into a coma for eight months. When she finally stirs, the Berlin Wall has come down, the Federal Republic has absorbed the Democratic Republic, and capitalist consumerism is running amok.

The doctor tells Alex that the slightest shock could kill her, so he resolves to recreate the old order in her bedroom. Her elderly and unemployed neighbors, resentful of being thrown on the scrap heap of history by the triumph of capitalism, play along with his charade. When his mother asks for her favorite groceries, he roots through garbage cans for old communist bottles into which to pour the new capitalist wine that is flooding the store shelves. Most ambitiously, with the aid of an East German video archive, he fakes the tedious, poorly produced propaganda newscasts his mother finds so reassuring.

One day, feeling better, she wanders outside and sees a giant statue of Lenin being airlifted away and mighty BMWs thronging the streets. Improvising desperately, Alex concocts from footage of November 9, 1989 a documentary showing hordes of refugees from capitalism climbing over the Wall into East Berlin.

In the hands of a Tom Stoppard, this could be quite funny indeed. But Becker keeps the comedy on a surprisingly short leash and plays up the family pathos, with even Alex's father putting in a late and unresolved reappearance.

As the devoted youth, Daniel Brühl's likeable masculinity distracts from the inevitable suspicion that only a gay son could identify so closely with his mother's feelings. But the 47-year-old Katrin Sass is too young and vigorous to play the mother. Instead of a frail creature needing to be protected at all costs, her character appears to be in her immediate post-menopausal prime, a woman who would adjust happily to a new society more open to her talents.

Of course, the harsh truth is that the old and ill just aren't much fun to watch on screen, so we rarely see what dying really looks like.

The most disturbing aspect of Ostalgia is the hint that Germans find freedom uninspiring, at least in its contemporary manifestation as superficial Euro-materialism. That just doesn't seem to satisfy the depths of the German soul. Of course, after the last 90 years, the rest of us probably don't want Germans looking too deeply into their souls.

For two hundred years, when new emotions likes Ostalgia swept Germany, the world needed, for better or worse, to pay attention. Today, presumably, Germans have reached Francis Fukuyama's end of history, so we can safely write off Ostalgia as a campy and/or pathetic novelty. Then again, maybe not: these are still Germans we're talking about.



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