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Domesticating East German communism through celluloid and bricks

Ines Geisler
30 October 2003

A spectre is haunting German popular culture – the spectre of communism. But this time – 155 years after Marx and Engels’ famous manifesto – it appears as charm not threat, consolation not revolution, the celebration of a past way of life rather than the imagining of a new one. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) that lasted for forty years – one of the most senile and beige figures of the Soviet empire – has taken off its glasses, loosened its hair and turned sexy.

GDR television programmes and stars are revived. Artefacts of the old regime – from identity documents to cap badges and propaganda posters – are rebranded as souvenirs and targeted at Germany’s willing consumers. Ostalgia, the playful German word once used to mock East Germans’ pathetic longing for their past, has acquired a new, positive meaning.

Wolfgang Becker’s film Goodbye Lenin is a prime signifier of this phenomenon. Its astounding domestic success is clearly owed to its ‘political’ as much as its intrinsic comedic qualities – what Julian Kramer on openDemocracy calls its “mental reunification of Germans led from the East, where Westerners are able to acknowledge the human values of the sunken German Democratic Republic without feeling complicit with its bankrupt political system.

But the danger of a purely affirmative critique – and the overwhelming majority of media reviews have been of this type – is that it fails to situate Goodbye Lenin more fully in a complex historical reality, fails to recognise how the film indulges and sanitises this reality, and thus in the end reinforces the film’s disabling conservatism. Goodbye Lenin is an evasive film about and for evasive times. That is its attraction and its deceit. To register both, as I will try to do in this article, is also to open a different space of understanding both of the GDR experience and the parade of pan-German Ostalgia in which it is now being re-enacted.

The making of the cult

Goodbye Lenin was consciously marketed as a ‘cult film’. The manufacturing of a cult film starts with the poster. The graphics are the familiar red-white-black tricolour of the modernist manifesto, used by communists and fascist ideologies alike. But instead of the communist red star or the Nazi swastika, there is an exclamation mark – for this is not a manifesto but a farewell film to modernist ideology.

Good bye Lenin film poster in German and in Hebrew

'Good bye Lenin' film poster in German and in Hebrew

No previous German film was marketed with such a wealth of information and guidance. Even before its release, the production company X-Filme offered a bulging website featuring the ‘making of’ the production. Here, you can read interviews with the actors and production staff; browse newspaper articles, download the soundtrack, view the trailer, play a game, enter an online chat-room dedicated to the film and even link to the most important websites on GDR everyday culture.

Before Goodbye Lenin was officially released, members of the German Bundestag were given a gala presentation, suggesting that almost thirteen years after reunification, politicians still feel the need to demonstrate their awareness of East German sensitivities. The political attention which was given to the film was based on its perceived authority in representing life under the GDR. This presumption is reflected also in the fact that a popular textbook for primary schools has been published, which uses scenes from the film to refer to moments in the GDR’s history and Germany’s reunification.

The success of the film, and the revival of (previously invisible) GDR culture, are based on the belief that daily life under the GDR was not so much a reflection of its flawed ideology as a popular form of subversion. The phenomenon of Ostalgia is shot through with this contradiction, one which represents life under the flawed regime positively even while despising it.

This understanding is captured in a comment made by Christoph Dieckmann in Die Zeit: “Nobody wants the GDR back. But everybody who lived in it, defends […] his true life in the false one.” The depoliticisation of the mundane limits our understanding of the way ideology works. For it is within the practices of everyday life that a regime’s politics and ideology are most strongly manifested. When I reflect on my own life in the GDR, it was in the very way we lived that life that the ideology was made effective – from how we went to school, to how we shopped, watched TV, and played sport.

Through East German eyes

I saw the film in a cinema in the middle of an ex-socialist housing-block area in Leipzig, my home town. The afternoon show was surprisingly crowded. I assumed that this was because it had cut-price tickets for the retired and unemployed. But no, the ticket collector confirmed that this film was pulling crowds as big as the Harry Potter film.

view to the Frauenkirche before and after the destruction

Dresden, view to the Frauenkirche before and after the destruction 13-14 February 1945. (Images taken from: Kurt Schaarschuch, 'Bilddokument Dresden: 1933-1945', Dresden, 1946)

Here in Leipzig it was a film about the passing away of socialist society and those who knew that society from the inside wanted to see it, to check whether they had been well represented. As part of this ‘ex-GDR audience’ – even though I have been living in London for some time – this common ground between film and audience gave me a pleasant frisson.

Increasingly, I found myself observing the grumpy way in which the rest of the audience were watching the screen. I was part of them, one of them, yet more than once – to my embarrassment – I turned out to be the only person laughing in the crowded cinema. The East German reputation for being grumpy did not quite explain why I was finding things funny which other people did not.

“It is not a comedy, although the film has its comic side,” Wolfgang Becker had said in a Guardian interview. “It’s only comic when you look at it in the modern context. It is also a tragedy that highlights the brutality of the old regime.” Perhaps, for my Leipzig audience, this tragic dimension was evoked less by the film’s depiction of such brutality as by its lighter moments – those closer to their own experiences and personal memories. For them, it was the sight of everyday objects and rituals, retrospectively filled with the charm of a lost world, that brought the east to life, the reminder of a safer past contrasting with the harsh realities of daily life today.

Goodbye Lenin therefore cannot be dismissed as yet another comedy about the great political change that overtook East Germany in 1989-90. It is more illuminating to see it as a symptomatic construct relating to the successive waves of nostalgia and historical revival that have become paradigmatic for German culture.

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Dresden, view to the Zwinger before and after the destruction 13-14 February 1945 (Images taken from: Kurt Schaarschuch, 'Bilddokument Dresden: 1933-1945', Dresden, 1945)

In the Guardian article, Wolfgang Becker said about his film: “There is a tension between the east and west […] An East German could not have made this film […] we (the Westerners) don’t have the inbuilt fear of criticising the system as we never participated in it.”

Yet, apart from a few scenes in the opening sequence, the film does not criticise East Germany. What it rather criticises is the west. The paradox presented by the director (or by the way he was represented in the interview) is actually non-existent. It was through the fictional offering of a hypothetical victory of the eastern bloc that a shred of value is described within the collapsed political order question.

It is a western film which raises the spectre of the east as a mirror image with which it can understand itself. As such, it belongs to a tradition which goes back to the cold war, when (as Tony Shaw shows in his book British Cinema and the Cold War) film production, just as any other branch of culture, was integrated into Anglo-American anti-communist and anti-Soviet propaganda, where the west formed itself against the imager of the east.

Torn Curtain

One of the characteristic films of the cold war era was Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966). Frida Grafe’s Filmfarben describes how Hitchcock wanted its setting to be as realistic as possible. The GDR, where the film was set, was inaccessible in this period; so, just as Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin reproduced the GDR in a flat, so Hitchcock created his in the Universal City studios.

Hitchcock, obsessed with the use and meaning of colour, placed a spectrum of beige filters on the camera and dressed his characters in shades of grey. As Grafe points out, he even remade the German agfa-colours to capture the transparent water-colour tones. This palette was chosen to convey the sinister threat of its regime opponent.

The east is represented as a bureaucratic and technocratic evil machine, pitted against the individual heroism of the American scientist (dressed in blue) and his lover (dressed in green), both turned spies.

But where the films of the 1950s and 1960s reflected fear of the east, now the latter has become a cinematic source of weirdness and comedy. While the GDR still existed, this shift corresponded to a gradual change in the GDR’s self-image. In the 1950s and 1960s, the entire orientation of the state was based on a progressive vision of history. By 1971, when Erich Honecker replaced Walter Ulbricht as president, the attainment of full communism was no longer seen as a central issue. The state’s official agenda had become increasingly conservative. Quite apart from the loss of this progressive attitude, it was becoming increasingly difficult to hide the emerging economical difficulties. The socialist state had lost its status internationally.

An architectural ‘arms race’

The film’s location in a socialist housing block on Stalinallee, the main military parade boulevard of East Berlin, suggests the importance of architecture as a medium of symbolic difference.

Leipzig, view towards Nikolaikirche, in 1986 and after its renovation in 1999

Leipzig, view towards Nikolaikirche, in 1986 and after its renovation in 1999 (Images taken from: 'Leipzig. Den Wandel zeigen’, Edition Leipzig, 2000)

In what could be termed ‘the war of architecture and urbanism’ the east-west conflict was also played out across the urban landscape. The area along what remains of the Berlin Wall can be read as a kind of architectural battleground, fortifying the rival states at the level of propaganda and psychology rather than militarism. Here, the cultural confrontation was played out in an insistently competitive ‘arms race’ of avenues, housing estates, public functions and high-rise tower blocks.

This rivalry took a variety of forms. At the end of 1957, almost ten years after the formal division of Germany, West Berlin commissioned a competition with the aim of promoting the return of a future, unified German government to the city of Berlin. East German architects were barred from entry. The participants, who included some of the most acclaimed architects of the time, did not hesitate to extend their plans over East Berlin’s territory. Indeed, most used the opportunity to exhibit their most radical, high-rise fantasies.

This ‘battle of the skyline’ took a more hostile turn in 1966, when the publishing magnate Axel Springer threatened to project news written in light past his nineteen-storey publishing house, across the wall to the east. The east retaliated by establishing a new, nineteen-storey minimum building height for its own high-rises. (In that case, people living around Leipziger Strasse on the eastern side – trusted party loyalists – would consolidate their function as a ‘second wall’). In the event, Springer’s plan didn’t materialise. But ironically, the loyalists themselves started fleeing the country in home-made hang-gliders.

The East Berlin architectural ‘wall’, begun in the early 1970s, was in itself an immense undertaking, comparable to the construction of Stalinallee in the 1950s. Both projects exemplify the way in which architecture served ideology in the city: as the 1950s project celebrated the power of German communism for a mass audience, so the 1970s one shielded the state from the very sight of the west.

Stalinallee: the politics of urban spectacle

If the wall represented the GDR’s determination to secure its own territorial space in its capital city, Stalinallee embodied its urbanists’ dream-model for the rest of the country – an urban space where the flow of marching citizens would bring a revolutionary rhythm into a city which had received socialism through occupation.

The choreography of moving bodies on national holidays like 1 May or 7 October were a simulacrum of revolution designed also to deter any thoughts of counter-revolution. The demonstrations imitated the form of a public uprising only; their actual content was conformist in the extreme. Citizens were channelled in small groups through the veins of the city into its main branches, passing the central tribune, from which the state’s leaders would issue their fatherly greetings.

Such ‘grand projects’, typical of totalitarian regimes, can only be built by a centrally-organised workforce. The first generation of East German workers, inhabiting unfinished housing blocks in the shattered post-war city, felt acutely the contradictions between their own restricted lives and the grandiose ambition to which they were pressed to give shape.

Forced to work at speed and paid in vouchers whose accumulation might later assure an apartment in the prestigious buildings, they built traditionally, laying bricks and ceramic tiles from Meissen, chiselling stone ornaments and fixing luxury interiors. The paradoxes in their work finally collided with wider economic and political discontent into an extraordinary moment of collective protest. Berlin and many other cities in East Germany exploded on 17 June 1953 and in the following days.

Leipzig, Bästleinstrasse 10, High-rise Type PH 16 before and after its renovation in 1995/96

Leipzig, Bästleinstrasse 10, High-rise Type PH 16 before and after its renovation in 1995/96. (Images taken from: Niels Gormsen, Armin Kühne, ‘Leipzig. Den Wandel zeigen’, Edition Leipzig, 2000)

Thus, a project designed for the re-enactment of a revolution became the site of a counter-revolution. The workers threw the bricks supplied for Stalinallee’s construction at the state buildings and the Soviet tanks that came to protect them. On 17 June 1953 – and possibly again in the 1989 demonstrations – a circle finally closed.

The domesticated enemy

What happens to these revolutionary and counter-revolutionary ambitions when they have nowhere else to go? The post-GDR experience of ‘reunification’ suggests an answer: cuteness and nostalgia. The old ‘enemy’ has been domesticated, and those who remember or are defined by it turn it into a fetish.

It is the privilege of a victor to make a victim cute, and the opportunity of a victim to collaborate in this process. Only at a safe distance from the original events is it possible to laugh about a dictatorship whose cruelty seems forgotten and even forgiven because it was so conveniently defeated.

It is only recently, then, that Germans on both sides of the former wall have begun (as in Goodbye Lenin) to excavate different stories from their architectural environment, ones that draw on two very different nostalgic cycles can be identified in contemporary German culture. The first is exemplified by the periodisation of ‘before’ and ‘after’ the collapse of the Berlin Wall represented in the film; but this exists within and is encompassed by a deeper, longer nostalgic cycle – one that seeks the foundations of a unified Germany in the less problematic 19th century past.

Leipzig-Grünau, Allee-Centre in 2002 and in 2003 after demolition of neighbouring high-rises

Leipzig-Grünau, Allee-Centre in 2002 and in 2003 after demolition of neighbouring high-rises. (Images taken by Ines Geisler)

It is this safely distant period that is embodied in this second nostalgic cycle. Under the term ‘critical reconstruction’, it is now being built in bricks and concrete into the German capital of Berlin. Here a characteristic German phenomenon is revealed. Today’s ideology can only be legitimised if it is seen as standing in dialectical opposition to the preceding one. The ‘revolutionary’ nature of German politics and culture, and hence also of its urbanism, is based on a rejection of the immediate past.

In city monographs, sequences of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of the same place each describe a new, radical break from the immediate past. 19th century pairs show the replacement of medieval fabric with modern bourgeois ones. Post-1945 sets of images show the old city fabric versus its rubble, the depictions of destruction promising rapid reconstruction. 1960s images boast clean, well-serviced social housing blocks versus the almost derelict and dilapidated 19th century fabric. Contemporary images show offices and shops in the newly (re-)constructed Prussian style architecture, replacing the depressing old eastern block housing. A before / after cycle lasting for 150 years is closing.

Recreate the past to affirm the present

In Goodbye Lenin, this temporal divide combines with a spatial one – between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Entering and leaving the home, the block, the city, the state, the characters commute between past and present, the controllable and the incomprehensible, between different everyday practices and routines, governed by different politics.

The flat becomes a time machine, where the characters temporarily re-enact the everyday routines of the GDR. They redecorate the flat with its old furniture, and carefully restrict the view from its window. Former colleagues and neighbours replay old habits and rituals when visiting the mother at her sickbed.

Inside the space of the home, not only the material world and iconography of the old regime continues, but also the ideological rituals which governed those domestic objects. Politics enters the ‘inside’ as a practice rather than a product. It is not surprising that, when the wall fell, East Germans cleared out their flats so thoroughly, as if exorcising a ghost – the political ideology had soaked deep into the walls.

But a closed circle contains its own subdued energies and longings. Floating in a space-time of juxtapositions, the characters of the film experience both present and past, and we do so with them. A comparison between the two inevitably serves to reinforce the ‘now’ over the ‘then’. Like the juxtaposition of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs within city monographs, the film holds the past as a ventriloquist holds its dummy, making it come alive, speaking its words, reinforcing the current order of things.

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