Going East, Looking West: Border Crossings in Recent German Cinema
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Going East, Looking West:
Border Crossings in Recent German Cinema

Border crossings from West to East Germany, the theme connecting the three recent film texts that are the subject of this paper, are not merely journeys negotiating spatial and political divisions. Crossing the border to East Germany constitutes an excursion into the past of the divided country and thus contributes to the reconstruction of intensely contested recent history. Set in the eighties, all three narratives are coming-of-age stories about teenage protagonists who travel from West Germany or West Berlin to the GDR. In Connie Walther's Wie Feuer und Flamme (2001), seventeen-year-old Nele from West Berlin visits East Berlin to attend her grandmother's funeral, when she meets and starts a relationship with Captain, member of a punk band. Erwin Keusch's television production Lilly unter den Linden (2002) tells the story of a thirteen-year-old girl who, after her mother dies, tries to find her only remaining relatives in East Germany. In Kleinruppin Forever (2004), director Carsten Fiebeler uses a twin-brother scenario for his comedy of mistaken identities: nineteen-year old Tim from Bremen goes to the East German province as part of a school excursion, where he meets his identical twin, Ronnie. These three texts were written or directed by representatives of the last generation coming of age themselves before 1989. Therefore, these fictional accounts of border crossings not only reflect on GDR history through the eyes of a younger generation of artists, but also are inflected by personal memories of their authors' own youth.

The last few years have seen shifts in the representation of GDR history and of East German and West German teenage identities. In the immediate post-Wende years, teenage characters, and in particular East German teenagers, were practically absent from the commercially successful German cinema of the "Beziehungskomödien," produced in almost all cases by West German filmmakers. If filmmakers did refer more generally to the eastern parts of the newly unified country as well as to unification (for example in Vadim Glowna's Der Brocken, 1993, or in Detlev Buck's Wir können auch anders, 1993), they usually articulated a postmodern longing for reliable frames of reference and nostalgically revived the concept of Heimat by using East German (rural) spaces as a site where the preservation of a stable community was still possible(Naughton 125–27). The few East German films that reached the cinemas before 1992, when the East German film production company DEFA ceased to exist, and that had young protagonists at the centre of their narratives often attempted [End Page 453] to come to terms with the oppressive nature of the Stasi past and to highlight the failures and crimes of the East German state. These narratives were dominated by images of isolation, disorientation, frustration, help- and hopelessness, and they projected uncertain if not totally bleak visions of the future (see for example Frank Beyer's Der Verdacht, 1991; Helmut Dziuba's Jana und Jan, 1992; Rolf Losansky's Abschiedsdisco, 1988; Jürgen Brauer's Tanz auf der Kippe, 1991). Visually, the East German Wende-cinema iconography was characterized mainly by grey, depopulated or dilapidated urban spaces and polluted, de-industrialized landscapes. Also, many of the Wende films metonymically projected an oppressor-victim dichotomy characterizing the East German state onto family relationships. With the parent generation standing in for the whole of the discredited system, the narratives made the complete breakdown of the relationship between parents and their teenage children seem inevitable.

Since then, the pessimistic images of disillusion, indoctrination, and irreparable family relations have been replaced by a much more complex and diversified picture of growing up in the GDR and post-Wende East Germany. Films such as Vanessa Jopp's Vergiss Amerika (2000) and Leander Haußmann's Sonnenallee (1999) are more well-known examples for approaches that, rather than interpreting their stories of teenage quests as essentially East German, emphasize the universal nature of coming-of-age passages and intergenerational tensions and focus on the more subjective perspective of the individual without the symbolic overtones of the earlier films.

Cultural memory discourses on the character and legacy...