Friday, October 01, 2010

Flashback Freitag: Deutschland fur Alles (und "Goodbye, Lenin!")

On October 3rd, Germans will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the reunification of their country. I'm stunned that it has been twenty years now. Germany was separated into four sectors after losing the Second World War. The Allies divided the country, as well as the capital city of Berlin. However, because the Soviet Union had a different form of government than the British, French, and Americans, the eastern states became the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Democratische Republik), or nicknamed East Germany. Out of all of the Soviet client states of Eastern Europe, East Germany was probably the most tightly controlled, a true nightmare of Orwellian proportions.

The British, French, and American sectors became the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundes Republik Deutschland), or West Germany. If that weren't enough, the huge metropolis of Berlin shared the same division as the country. The three sectors operated by British, French, and American troops became West Berlin while the eastern sector became East Berlin. In the post-war years, Germans were free to travel between the sectors, until the Soviets had a wall built to keep the people from defecting to the west. West Berlin became an island of capitalism in a sea of communism, completely surrounded by a concrete wall that quickly became a canvas for graffiti artists everywhere. The unfortunate Germans stuck on the eastern side of the wall were kept at a distance from the wall. In addition to a buffer zone which supposedly had land mines, there were barbed wire fences and guard towers. East Germans became prisoners in their own country. For forty years.

West Germany thrived and became the economic powerhouse of Europe by the 1980s. One of the things I'm most appreciative about our government is the fact that we maintained military bases in the country. At its height during the Cold War, more than half a million U.S. troops were stationed in West Germany. My dad, a Captain in the U.S. Air Force at the time, received dream orders to Germany in 1985. I had dreamed of living in Germany since the late 1970s when my dad's younger brother was stationed in Saarbrucken for a couple years. The entire family was excited when dad received orders to run the weather station at Sickles Army Airfield near the town of Fulda, which was just 12 miles from the East German border. From 1985 through 1988, my family lived on Downs Barracks in Fulda, aware of the fact that at any time, the Soviet Army could launch an invasion of Western Europe and that "The Fulda Gap" was the likeliest point of entry.

The USO offered tours to see the border. Unfortunately, I am the only family member who never got to go on that tour. My dad would not allow me to skip school to go on the tour, though he would take me out of school to attend a church retreat in Bertesgarten (when I missed out on the Student Awards assembly in which I won two awards: Best Student in German class and Best Journal in my English class). Even my visiting grandparents got to go on a tour of the border! In retrospect, it was probably destiny that I did not go, because knowing me, I would have likely provoked the East German guards to shoot me. As my brother reported when he went on the tour, they were told not to go beyond a certain point. Those who tested the line of no return swore they heard guns clicking into place.

My brother has the unique distinction of being the only family member to have been through East Germany and toured East Berlin with a group of boys in uniform on a camping trip of a lifetime. Man, I regret not joining that troop, just for the trip. I thought I'd eventually make it to West Berlin, as my sophomore class planned a class trip at the end of the school year in 1988 to Berlin. Somehow, plans fell through and we were all disappointed.

My family transferred back to the U.S. in August 1988. A year later, as a senior in high school getting interested in world events in a deeper way, I was stunned reading initial reports of East German families on vacation to Hungary defecting into Austria. What was going on with the border security? After forty years of communism, the economies of Eastern Europe were in dismal shape and some countries were showing signs of rebellion (particularly Czechoslovakia and Hungary, which had previous uprisings in 1968 and 1956, respectively, until Soviet troops crushed them). Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev came into power in 1985 after a string of old, hardline communists leaders died in quick succession. Gorbachev introduced Glasnost and Perestroika in order to save communism from itself, but it ultimately led to the most amazing Autumn in our lifetime. By November 1989, the East German government could not stem the tide of people in mass exodus, so the shoot-to-kill orders of the guards was rescinded and the people stormed the Berlin Wall in the most amazing celebration of human freedom that I've ever seen.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl wanted to secure his place in the history books, so he sped up the reunification process. It probably happened faster than it should have. I was one of those who preferred a slower approach (like the Soviets and the French). However, shortly less than a year after the collapse of Erich Honecker's totalitarian rule in East Germany, the two Germanys reunited. As if the zeitgeist were with the Germans that year, their soccer team had also won the World Cup that summer in Italy.

In the summer of 1997, I had the opportunity to visit Berlin for a weekend (during my Naval Reserve two week duty at a command in Stuttgart, Germany). It was one of those bus tours that operate out of military bases all over Germany. It left late at night on Friday so that we could sleep on the way to our destination city of choice (I wanted to see both Amsterdam and Berlin, but could only go on one). I woke up with a fright when the bus started swerving. It was a bumpy ride. Welcome to eastern Germany. The quality of the roads, even seven years after reunification, was poor. This tour included a one night hotel stay at the Berlin Hilton, which was in the eastern part of Berlin. I had enough free time on Saturday to wander the city by myself. I found myself liking Eastern Berlin better than the western part. Western Berlin was like any major city in Europe. Plus, construction cranes were all over the city. It was the city to be in during the 1990s. The reason why I liked eastern Berlin better is because you can see the difference in architecture. Communist era architecture is pretty drab. I imagine that it would have been quite depressing to live in East Berlin during the communist era. As I walked around taking pictures of buildings in Eastern Berlin, I imagined myself a spy during the communist era (its still fun to pretend, sometimes, even when you're an adult!). It was an awesome trip.

The rest of this post is a movie review that I had posted several years ago on about one of my all time favourite foreign language films: Goodbye, Lenin! It came out in 2004 and addresses the actual phenomenon known in Germany as "Ostalgie" (a brilliant combination of the words "nostalgia" and "Ost", which is "east" in German). After the initial euphoria of reunification wore off, reality set in with a rude awakening. East German culture was far different from West German culture. For Americans to understand the difference, East German culture would be considered "kitsch" (cheesy). Just think of how we would react if we met an entire group of people who dressed and acted like the Brady Bunch, bellbottoms and all! Naturally, clashes would result. So, this brilliant movie addresses the phenomenon with heartwarming and hilarious results.

For those interested in seeing what life was like under the constant surveillance of East Germany, another excellent German film worth watching is The Lives of Others, which came out a few years ago. I highly recommend both movies.

Finally, a film that satisfied a lifelong curiosity I've had for people my age who lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Since elementary school, I always wondered what it was like for kids like me who were unfortunate to be born in the Soviet Union or East Germany, two of the harshest communist states. This curiosity led to my checking out books on the topic and reading about it, and being called a "commie" by my fellow Americans, as if curiosity about someone our government tells us is "our enemy" makes me one of them! I was thrilled when I read a movie like this had come out, showing life in the last days of East Germany and the euphoria of a new world opening up for people who pretty much lived in a prison all their lives.

Of course, the initial rush of euphoria in newfound freedom left a harsh wake up call as differences in work ethics, standards of living, and cultural references became more and more apparent after reunification of the two Germanys. In personal terms, think of what it would be like if separated twins discovered each other late in a Wall Street stockbroker, the other a trailer park living low wage slave. A clash in more ways than one, right?

The performances of Daniel Bruhl as the idealistic son and of Katrin Sass as the mother who always believed in Marxism really stand out and are Oscar-worthy. The lengths the son goes to, to prevent his mother from falling into another coma over the shock of the demise of East Germany provides much of the humor. My favorite scene is when the mother, tired of being cooped up in the bedroom, decides to go for a walk outside and its like walking through Wonderland for her. The look of complete bafflement on her face as she watches a statue of Lenin fly through the air, in a salutatory departure, is pure joy to watch. Just her look alone perfectly conveys the confusion of a world being turned upside down.

This film addresses the issue of "Ostalgie" that has gripped some former East Germans in the late 1990s as they have found that the materialism of the West hasn't replaced a sense of community for them. Under the iron fisted rule of Honecker, they might not have had much, but they suffered together and had a genuine sense of community...although any one of their neighbors could have turned them in to the state for any number of "violations." Watching this film, one can see the draw of culture on a person and the void left behind when the culture is stripped away or proven false. Does longing for the familiar products of one's youth actually mean a desire to return to the way things were? I don't think so...but culture is something we'll always carry with us. It's who we are.

The brilliance of this film for me, is that we get to look at East Germans as people with no control over their form of government. In America, we were taught that the Russians and Eastern Europeans were our "enemies" and a lot of people bought into it. But in reality, they are people just like us. People who believe their government over a foreign government they're not familiar with. Are we any different? I like that this film shows an idealistic young East German and his yearning for freedom, idolizing a Cosmonaut, and who loves his mother so much that he dares not tell her the truth about what happened to their country since she fell into and out of a coma. This deception strains his relations with his sister, but provides much humorous situations before reaching a satisfying conclusion. I have no complaints about this film. It's flawless and brilliant. The acting and humor are first rate and Oscar-worthy. I would rate Goodbye Lenin! as the best film I've seen in 2004.

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