- Twenty Years On: Competing Memories of the GDR in Postunification German Culture ed. by Renate Rechtien and Dennis Tate
Developed out of an interdisciplinary conference held at the University of Bath in 2009, this volume offers a broad spectrum of essays on literary, cinematic and photographic remembrance of the GDR twenty years after unification. It is evenly divided into five sections: I. Media Constructions, II. Challenges of the Dominant Discourse of the Wende, III. Textual Memory, IV. Literary Generations, and V. Afterlives. In his introductory remarks, Dennis Tate comments extensively on the volume Die Nacht, in der die Mauer fiel (2009) as an attempt to summarize, if not epitomize, this historical event through the lens of cultural and historical witnesses: twenty-five East and West German authors. Although caught between intensely repeated (but ultimately static) media images, iconographic shortcuts, and easily palatable accentuations of certain historical “moments,” most contributors nonetheless seek to subvert “the desire to reduce historical processes to a linear narrative with a happy ending” (2). In sync with this premise, the editor hopes that this volume would inquire into the nature of “GDR culture” and the “GDR experience” as mediated by a number of disparate post-unification events, as well as the differing aesthetic and ideological sensibilities apparent in their historical documentation.
The first essay by Hilde Hoffmann discusses the role of television images in constituting, interpreting and historicizing political events and narratives. It analyzes in great detail the visual production of the Mauerfall along three interdependent stages: Aktualitätsproduktion, Narrativisierung, and Historisierung. She points out how media images congeal into stories, meaning and ultimately “Bild-Monumente” (35) through their particular sequencing and circulation. Ironically, she finds that through their linkage with “various dominant cultural discourses [they] decontextualize the historic setting they are intended to represent and open it up to other associative and ahistorical patterns of interpretation” (36).
In his contribution, titled “Remembering GDR Culture in Postunification Germany and Beyond,” Stephen Brockmann asks how, or if, it is possible to “imagine the GDR on its own terms” (40), and proceeds to outline the kinds of epistemological difficulties we encounter as “foreign observers” from the West. He concludes that “it is not just socialism or socialist realism that [End Page 377] makes the culture of the GDR so difficult for us to understand today,” but the pre-dominance and reverence of the generative power of “traditional bourgeois German high-culture” (52).
The second section of the book portrays various literary and cinematographic challenges to dominant discourses about the GDR. Daniel Argelés focuses on Klaus Schlesinger’s text Die Sache mit Randow (1996), as well as Arne de Winde and Frederik Van Dam on aspects of Reinhard Jirgl’s oeuvre and poetology, and Rosemary Stott on Andreas Dresen’s film So schnell es geht nach Istanbul (2009). In these essays, different aesthetic strategies come to light. Die Sache mit Randow is discussed as an attempt to bring “objective” historical themes into a critical dialogue with “subjective” reflections and sensibilities. Van Dam argues that Jirgl’s work performed a specific poetics of myth-correction, aspiring to preserving the “Eigen-Sinn” of artistic expression as an idiosyncratic turning to reality. So schnell es geht nach Istanbul is presented as a critical turn in the cinematic conception of cross-border romance, emphasizing ambivalent, and even unsavory, realities as a way to challenge the purely ornamental, melodramatic stylizations of conventional choreography.
The volume’s third section, themed upon the formation of textual memory, features varied responses to the question: how can literature simultaneously contribute to Germany’s “officially sanctioned” memory culture and yet challenge myopic perceptions of the past, or (inadvertent) ideological abbreviations and distortions? Andrea Geier asserts that three major contemporary novels (by Thomas Brussig, Ingo Schulz, and Uwe Tellkamp) all “lay claim to totality, a feature which … makes them seem traditional, even though they are at the same time indubitably modernist” (102). Her analysis pays careful attention to their innovative narrative constructions and their engagement...