I was both amused and touched by a delightful film out of Germany, Goodbye, Lenin! (English web site; German web site) that I saw the other night. It’s about the efforts of a family to shelter their mother, who has been in a coma, from learning that the German Democratic Republic (DDR) under which she had lived her life had disappeared.
The film doesn’t sugar coat at all the awfulness of living under a police state or the shabbiness and trashiness of socialism. At the same time, it does show how many people have had a hard time adjusting to the change. (Last November I was in Berlin and took a cab from Potsdam to the Tegelhof Airport. The driver was an older “Ossi” and we talked about the change. He was enthusiastic about the effects on his children, who have been to other countries and who have a much higher standard of living, more opportunities, and — above all — freedom. But he also explained how changing from being an employee of a state taxi firm to the owner of his own taxi was difficult; instead of showing up and being handed keys to a taxi and instructions, he has to be responsible for insurance, maintenance on the car, etc., etc. He said that it was quite hard for people of his generation to make the change, but nonetheless he was very glad that it happened.)
I was reminded by the film of my own visits to the DDR, which was a remarkably creepy and awful place. The omnipresence of the state agents, both uniformed and in plain clothes, the utter colorlessness, and the sense of being watched and hemmed in at all times were extremely oppressive. I remember walking through Checkpoint Charlie as the last visitor to leave East Berlin one evening and feeling such a sense of relief when a boy on a bicycle almost hit me (the streets of the East were, in contrast, almost completely deserted, aside from the huge numbers of police agents) and when I was welcomed back into the world of colorful advertising (in contrast to the weirdly blank streets of the east, with their ghostly flickering neon signs for state-owned Bulgarian firms and the faded painted signs for virtually empty state shops). I remember on one occasion walking near the wall across from an observation platform where visitors to the west could gaze across the no-man’s land of landmines, control towers, vicious dogs, and automatic machine guns; I perched myself on a concrete platform of some sort (my memory is a bit faded; maybe it was the pediment to a statue) and waved to them. I quickly noticed that there was a leisurely but general movement of police officers to my location, so I hopped down and walked back to the east. And, despite having smuggled in large quantities of DDR marks, there was virtually nothing to buy. I ended up on one trip (after buying volumes of Karl Marx’s works for almost nothing) trying to spend my money in the most expensive restaurant I could find, (Unter den Linden, as I recall). The place was filled with Vietnamese and Bulgarian police state types (there was probably some kind of “Torturers and Interrogators” convention in town). I ordered the food, which ended up being tasteless and unappetizing, and when eating a chocolate mousse for dessert I bit into an actual rock. I mentioned it to the waittress, who simply remarked, “Hmmmmm….a rock. Interesting.” and took the plates away.
Goodbye, Lenin! is remarkably comical in its depictions of the efforts of the family to recreate the shabby conditions of German socialism in the mother’s bedroom and to shield her from knowledge of the collapse of all of the institutions of her life. Nonetheless, it was a profoundly sad movie and not simply a comedy. (The sadness is, fortunately, not so much for the collapse of the Evil Empire, but for the loss of youth and of years past; there is some regret at the passing, not of the actual DDR, but of the DDR as the mother saw it, which was not the same thing.)