Saturday, March 5, 2011

East Germany, Nostalgia, and Spreewell Pickles

The plot of the German film, Goodbye Lenin!, revolves around a patriotic East German woman's coma, which takes place in the final days of the Erich Honecker's G.D.R. In a coma, the woman misses her country's dramatic political revolution and transformation into a constituent part of Helmut Kohl's democratic, capitalist version of the German nation. Upon awakening her children, who have seen their mother destroyed by the putative defection of their father to West Germany many years earlier, struggle to protect their mother's fragile health by hiding the changes that overtaken their countrymen.

Just what are those changes? The film invites its viewers to ponder what has actually been gained or lost with the fall of communism. What did communism represent? The son has to think hard about what exactly might tip his invalid mother off about the end of her beloved country. What is first to go? The son, and a rather more reluctant sister, immediately exchange trendy Western fashions for older, shoddier, garments. Did we really used to wear this crap, the girl asks her brother? The children are incredulous, but put on their old clothes. And where exactly did the Che Guevara poster used to hang? And where can we put our new rock albums? The next step is to visit a supermarket to see if they can find any of the old, second-rate food brands their mother will recognize. Does the store still carry the old brand of pickles--Spreewell Pickles to be precise--the son asks? The grocery clerk is appalled: why would we do that when there's been a revolution?

More outlandishly, the son helps to set up fake political news, read monotonously in the style of the old regime. In this apartment, if no where else, communism wins, and events are reversed at the Berlin Wall, which is torn down by exploited Westerners who flood into East Germany in order to seek a better, fairer life. The East German state, now forty years, opens its arms to help its oppressed brethren.

The possibility that socialism might ever defeat capitalism now seems absurd. But how absurd is it? Surely the fact that East Germans publicly shouted in praise of West German currency, or flocked to see West German fast food joints and pornography shops, is not less absurd. What is it about capitalism, after all, that makes its triumph so desirable? Time plays tricks on us. The film reminds us that many ordinary men and women in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe used to imagine the triumph of their civilization, and at least sometimes believed that their governments were on the right side of historical progress. It's easy to forget that there were two sides in the Cold War.

The film has a few surprises. Near the end of the film the mother confesses that her husband did not, in fact, defect without her knowledge. Although her enthusiasm for socialist reform was apparently genuine, she reveals that her husband had been persecuted by the state and had actually asked her to go with him to the West. She feared that even an application to leave the country would lead to the loss of her children, and so she chose to remain in East Germany, devastated by the loss of her husband, but close to her children.

The tragedy of this separated family is emblematic of the tragedy of the nation which was itself bifurcated. What's interesting about the mother's revelation is that the malevolence of the East German State did not necessarily mean that she isn't capable of mourning its absence. This is something we would all do well to remember: we can be deeply nostalgic even about bad personal choices or historical roads that led nowhere.


  1. I love this idea of staging the past and the (intentional?) humor behind the notion that we cast things off pretty easily and are a bit blind to changes that an outsider would catch right away.

    In this example it's Spreewell pickles, but I can think of a million mundane examples from my own life of things that have disappeared (parachute pants? pay phones?) and others that have magically appeared but the magic's worn off to our eyes (name your technology...). I'd be hard-pressed to re-enact the 80's even if I did wear "trendy Western fashions".

    About your comment on nostalgia towards bad choices - I've certainly felt it! But in my experience much of that burden springs not from longing for what *was*, but for what I've wished something *could have been*. JPB

  2. Very well said! Your last comment is especially perspicacious... Sometimes a single alternative future--as represented by, say, an unused acceptance letter from Yale--stays with one forever.