- Good Bye, Lenin!:Free-Market Nostalgia for Socialist Consumerism
In the years immediately following the unification of Germany, mainstream German cinema portrayed the assimilation of former East Germans into a capitalist society as primarily an eastern matter. Following the successes of the New German Comedy of the 1980s, western German filmmakers concocted a mix of the newly popular Beziehungskomödien and cinematic Heimat humour to produce a series of successful films that presented the eastern German struggles to "catch up" with the West as an entertaining comedy of errors – Peter Timm's Go Trabi Go (1991), Wolfgang Büld's Das war der wilde Osten (1992), and Detlev Buck's Wir können auch anders (1993). A few eastern German filmmakers who had been trained by the now defunct GDR state film company DEFA made films in an auteur tradition that depicted the social despair facing many eastern Germans in the 1990s. Lacking experience working within a film industry geared for commercial success, even the most successful of these filmmakers were not able to break into the mainstream cinema track – Andreas Dresen (Nachtgestalten, 1999; Halbe Treppe, 2002), Andreas Kleinert (Verlorene Landschaft, 1992; Wege in die Nacht, 1999), and Olaf Kaiser (Drei Stern Rot, 2001), to name a few (see Cooke 103–10).
It was not until the end of the first decade of unification that German filmmakers were able to bridge this divide between escapist comedy and dark social pessimism to produce box office hits that also address the economic and psychic pressures bearing on unification. Two films in particular, Leander Haußmann's Sonnenallee (1999) and Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), find a common formula for overcoming the "wall in the head" between eastern and western Germans. Both take a nostalgic and fondly humorous look back at the GDR to address questions about the lingering problem of German identity. If nothing else, the success of these two films has shown that the lure of nostalgia for the culture of divided Germany is by no means limited to eastern Germans. Sonnenallee, whose writers (Thomas Brussig and Detlev Buck) and director (Haußmann) grew up in the GDR, drew strong attacks from some, mainly western critics who saw it as the product of a romanticized eastern German nostalgia for aspects of everyday life in the GDR that had disappeared after the Wende (Ostalgie). The film's detractors claim that it glosses over the oppression and atrocities of the GDR state (e.g. Buch), and there was even a lawsuit filed against Haußmann claiming insult against victims of the DDR (Cafferty 255). In an opposite vein, more attentive critics have argued that, along with its fetching portrayal of everyday life of GDR citizens, the film provides a critical perspective on the dangers that accompany such [End Page 206] nostalgia (Cafferty 257–58; Cooke 111–19). As several scholars have shown with regard to Ostalgie in general, the kind of nostalgic look back at happier moments in the GDR in Sonnenallee plays an important role in helping shore up a fragile eastern German sense of identity in unified Germany (Berghahn 249–50; Saunders 93–94). It is, on the other hand, not so readily clear why Sonnenallee's nostalgic depiction of an admittedly naive, unsophisticated GDR cultural milieu would appeal to western Germans as well.
More recently, Good Bye, Lenin! has had a far greater success stirring western German participation in Ostalgie (Berghahn 251–53). Made by the western German director Wolfgang Becker, who coauthored the script with Bernd Lichtenberg, also a western German, the film displays prominently many of the products and lifestyles popular among Ostalgie enthusiasts. Its appeal, however, has reached far beyond what one might expect to be its target audience of former GDR citizens. The biggest German box-office hit since the Wende, Becker's film, according to film critics, touched Germans in both East and West on a visceral level, even prompting a feeling of community between them (Göttler). Or, as a popular phrase from a review of the Berlin premiere has it, the film generated a "gesamtdeutsches Geflüster" (Göttler; Mommert and Kerkmann). In contrast to Sonnenallee, Becker...