CSMCH Discussion Group screens Goodbye Lenin

For the third CSMCH Discussion Group of this semester, the students of the centre screened the film Good Bye, Lenin! by director Wolfgang Becker as a basis from which to discuss nostalgia in post-Communist Germany and the Socialist world. Anita Klingler led the discussion by presenting the context of the film and post-socialist memory in Germany. Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz sent this report.

Good Bye, Lenin! is the story of an East German family during the tumultuous year of the Wende (“Turning Point,” the term used in referring to the events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall). The mother, Christiane, is a devout and active party loyalist who has been deeply committed to the socialist state since the departure of her husband to West Germany in 1978. Eleven years later, in October 1989, she is on her way to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the GDR with party dignitaries and observes her young adult son, Alex, clash with police during a pro-democracy protest march. The trauma of seeing her son among the demonstrators, combined with the shock of witnessing the brutality of the regime, prompts her to have a heart attack and sends her into a come for the next eight months.

Friday afternoon cinema!

While she is in a coma, the Berlin Wall falls, Eastern Germans embrace capitalism and consumerism, and Germany is catapulted toward reunification. Alex loses his job in the state-owned television repair service and begins selling satellite dishes, while his sister starts a relationship with a Wessi (West German citizen) and abandons her studies in order to work at Burger King. When Christiane emerges from her coma, doctors warn her children that any unexpected shock could complicate her recovery and potentially prove fatal. Her son Alex thus resolves to recreate the GDR in her bedroom, concealing from his mother all the changes of the past eight months.

In the course of this two-hour long tragicomic film, Alex manages to reinvent the GDR for his mother to the extent that he even thinks himself that the East Germany he has created actually exists. It was this theme that provided the springboard for the post-screening discussion.

A major theme of the discussion involved the tensions and gaps between appearance and reality, between fact and fiction. One question that arose was the way Alex rewrites the official history, like when he explained the presence of Wessies (West Germans) in East Germany due to the opening of the frontiers for the West Germans running away from the country through Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Also, a relevant aspect of the film is how Alex’s mother believed in Socialism, but at the end of the film confesses to her children that their father had not fled to the West for another woman, as they had been led to believe. Rather, his departure had been planned with the intention of having the family follow him as soon as possible. After he went, she tells them, she lacked the courage to go through with the plan. This raised a discussion about the extent to which she was a believer in the Socialist Regime. It also raised the question of the experience of exile from a dictatorship and the consequences of this action.

A second point discussed was how the film handled the question of democratisation in East Germany with the expansion of consumerism and sexual liberation, notably with the appearance in the film of symbols of late-capitalism or globalisation like Coca-Cola and Ikea. The discussion honed in on the empty buildings abandoned by East Germans which were occupied after the fall and most of them re-used, especially as spaces for alternative cultures and consumerism. A final theme was how the film explained the union of both Germanies through the role that football played politically during the World Cup in 1990, whose victory united both West and East in the joy of celebration.

Finally, we discussed the enduring nostalgia for the Socialist past, or Ostalgie, a term that plays with the German words for East, Ost, and nostalgia, Nostalgie. Anita reminded us how in today’s Germany, along with the official memory of this past promoted by the State, the people who lived in East Germany have their own memories, which tend to emphasize the positive aspects rather than the negative. We discussed this phenomenon not only in East Germany and other ex-socialist countries, but in other places such as Spain where part of the population idealises Francoism.

To sum up, this fantastic film allowed us to have an interesting debate about memory and nostalgia in post-communist societies. Our main conclusion was that the emotional memory of a regime could shape the way we see our own present, not only in the context of post-communism, but also other dictatorships, such as Spain.

While this is probably the last event of this academic year, we will continue our discussion group next semester. We expect to continue this exciting and lively forum for debate, with many overlapping perspectives. Everyone and all ideas are welcome. Do not hesitate to write to us (either Iker or Anita), and stay tuned for more news soon!

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977). He is a member of the CSMCH steering commitee.