Thursday, November 03, 2005

Ostalgie ain't quite what it is painted

[By popular demand - well, at least two readers were interested - I am reprinting the article that was first published in the Salisbury Review in December 2003.]

We do seem to hear rather a lot about nostalgia for Communism or, at least, the old order in Russia, the rest of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Mind you, we hear it from mostly from western writers and journalists, many of whom are nostalgic for the old certainties themselves. Just occasionally, there is a sigh or two from the old artistic and intellectual establishment in the post-Communist countries.

It is fair to assume that the Left has not completely recovered from the body blow that the collapse of Communism has dealt to its assumptions, particularly as it did not collapse under a direct onslaught from the capitalist west but from its own people. It was not wanted by those whom it was supposed to benefit and that is hard to accept if one's entire world-view was built on the assumption that with all its faults Communism tried to provide what people were supposed to long for in life. And then it was all over. Communism did not and could not, as its opponents said, reform itself. It simply collapsed, leaving behind, it is true a horrible mess economically and, often, politically speaking. It did not even turn into socialism with a human face – it just went.

Surely that was a mistake. Perhaps, we could have a replay. Surely, the people who so thoughtlessly brought that supposedly good, though, alas, often misguided system crashing down are regretting it all. Surely, they must by now be tired of the tawdriness of Western "culture" which, as they have surely found out, consists of little more than McDonald's golden arches and pornography.

Alas, this does not seem to be true. For one thing, the people of the post-Communist societies seem no more disgusted or enamoured with McDonald's than people anywhere else and it is somewhat arrogant on the part of well-meaning Western intellectuals to assume that somehow East Europeans and Russians would be incapable of dealing with the problem of hamburger joints or Starbucks. They, too, can exercise their freedom to choose.

Then, again, it does not take many brains to work out that freedom means far more than just eating hamburgers or watching pornography. Interviews in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe always seem to come to the same conclusion. Yes, people complain about difficulties, economic restructuring, understandable bewilderment, but all too often, to the almost audible disgust of the interviewer they add things like: "Yes, but it is good not to have to watch what you say any longer."

Or they talk artlessly about the pleasure of being able to buy what they want to buy when they want to buy it, not when the factory decides to produce it. These pleasures are incomprehensible and, even, unknown to Western intellectuals who have never had to go without anything much in their lives.

Of course, there is nostalgia. There is always nostalgia. It is part of the human condition that people always look longingly to the past when things were better, easier, more interesting, even purer. In the depths of one's nostalgia one knows that the picture painted by the imagination is not entirely accurate but that matters little. It is almost inevitable that the sort of economic, political and intellectual upheaval that Eastern Europe experienced in the last fifteen years should have left many people bewildered and with a feeling of fausse nostalgie, recently dubbed in East Germany or, at least about East Germany, as ostalgie.

I came across its first manifestation even before the upheaval truly happened, in about 1986 at a conference organized by PEN International in London on the subject of translation. Among the many different discussions and presentations there was one about the changes in the circumstances of East European translators as other conditions changed.

I remember an East German translator, whose loudly and extensively voiced complaint was that in the new capitalist culture he and his colleagues had to compete with West German translators who worked to contracts and, therefore, produced translations faster and more smoothly. The implication of his complaint was that these West German hacks were clearly inferior but he showed no evidence of this. The main problem was clearly that he could even then foresee a period when he would have to produce work in accordance with his contract or not get paid; he and his colleagues would have to say good-bye to their comfortable existence as salaried members of the Union of Writers and Translators. Creative freedom was all very well but a good flat, guaranteed holidays and a very acceptable regular income may well be more important.

I heard similar complaints when I went to the then Soviet Union a couple of years later. One writer (unpublished for reasons unknown) who lived in the second flat that his father, a high-ranking member of the Writers' Union had, suggested that I might like to translate his book. I pointed out that translations in Britain were paid for and if I did not get paid I could not live. He was clearly shocked by such capitalist mercantilism. He could afford to be then. One wonders whether he is now suffering from a Russian form of ostalgie or whether he has managed to come to terms with actually having to work for money rather than, as the old East European joke had it, to pretend to work for pretend pay.

It did not, therefore, surprise me when I first read about the latest supposed manifestation of ostalgie, Wolfgang Becker's film Goodbye Lenin. Critics fell over themselves to praise the elegance, sensitivity, political understanding displayed by the director and by the actors. I assumed that a diet of special effects and endless films about adolescents coming to terms with their sexuality had addled their brains to the point when any film that had a plot and a few serious points to make seemed like a work of genius.

I went to see the film fully prepared to come out declaring that if they want the Wall back, well, let them have it. But the film turned out to be unexpectedly better and worse than described. In the first place, I wondered whether I was watching the same film that the critics had seen. The one I watched showed no nostalgia for the old order at all. In fact, the shabbiness of life under Communism was made as clear as the general happiness about the collapse of the Wall, the improved living conditions and, even, the acquisition of "real" money, Western marks. The only people who grumbled about the changes were a few old curmudgeons, clearly well past retirement age, who, nevertheless, adjusted to the new conditions well enough to watch western TV and wear western clothes.

The plot of the film is well known: Alex, a rebellious East German teenager is arrested during the brutal breaking-up of a demonstration. This is witnessed by his mother who has a heart attack. The police are too busy carting youngsters off to the hoosegow to pay attention to a middle-aged woman collapsing in the street and by the time she gets to the hospital she is in a coma. There she stays for eight months while the world changes utterly. When she wakes up, the doctor warns Alex and his sister that she must not be subjected to any shocks. She had been an obnoxiously good Communist and Alex decides that to prevent her having a second heart attack he has to recreate the living conditions that she is used to. This necessitates all sorts of entertaining subterfuges, retrieval of old furniture, mock pioneer songs (sung by a couple of suitably bribed young boys), transference of new western goodies into old East German jars and so on.

As the film progresses it becomes clear that Alex has, indeed, recreated the Communist system in his own little enclosed world, not by using old East German pickle jars or making everyone dress in what his sister describes as "the crap we used to wear" but by building a system that is based entirely on a lie. His sister calls it creepy; his highly intelligent Russian girlfriend points the facts out to him: once you start lying it grows on you. And it does.

The lie gets bigger and bigger as Alex drags more people in by a combination of self-centred bullying and heavy doses of emotional blackmail. Outside, people rejoice while feeling a little scared but in Alex's little world obsessiveness and lying predominates. He no longer allows any kind of deviation. When his sister announces that she is pregnant and intends to move to another flat with her boyfriend and existing child he launches a vicious attack of the kind that would, in the real world, deserve a slap. Interestingly, he never manages to win a reasoned argument with the sister's wessie boyfriend, who shows himself to be a much nicer and more accommodating personality than the supposedly kind and sensitive Alex.

It is Alex who makes the derogatory comments about the ridiculous "benefits" of the reunification but when the film pans out into the world outside the flat the benefits are real. In fact, economic difficulties are not shown at all. Maybe the sister works at Burgerking but there is no indication that she ever liked studying economics and, in any case, what use is a Marxist economics degree anywhere except, maybe, a western university.

There is an interesting little vignette, not mentioned by the critics, but unlikely to have gone unnoted by Germans in the east of the country. Alex's sister, when pregnant, has an ultrasound scan. Her delight and amazement indicates clearly that she had had nothing like that with her first child a year or so previously. This is probably true. Standards of ante-natal care under Communism made one's hair stand on end. It is not only the golden arches that came to East Berlin once the Wall was no longer there.

In the end, the film remains unsatisfactory for a very ordinary reason: the plot goes nowhere after the first hour or so. Two thirds of the way through the film, Alex, his sister, his girlfriend and the sister’s boyfriend find out that the mother has a secret of her own: she knew that her husband was going to stay in the West and had intended to join him with the children. In the end she was too scared to apply for a visa. The world Alex was trying to re-create for her mother, the world for which he has forfeited his own soul and truth, turns out to have been based on a double lie even before his efforts: that of the system and that lived by the mother within the system.

Either the film should have finished there on a note of savage irony or it should have explored what the mother’s admission really entailed. It does neither but meanders on to an unlikely and sentimental conclusion in which Alex creates an artificial "alternative" reunification for his mother's benefit so she can die happy.

It is this "alternative" reunification that has appealed to so many critics in the West, who do not seem to like the reality of the true people’s power that swept away the Wall and all that it had entailed. There is, as it happens, a modicum of doubt in the film about the mother’s final attitude: does she believe Alex or is she going along not to upset him? This, too, remains unexplored. In the end, by taking Alex’s side and accepting his mutterings about how East Germany ought to have ended the film appears to create a lie of its own.

It succumbs to a certain ideological explanation in the teeth of its own evidence. Or maybe not. Could it be that Becker is now using the famous Aesopian language that writers, artists and film-makers employed to circumvent Communist censorship, to tell the truth but also to gratify those western critics who still dislike the truth about Communism and its collapse? After all, if Alex creates a more fitting end for the German Democratic Republic than the one that really happened then the conclusion is inescapable: the fitting end is one that is surrounded by lies.

As the country lived so it should die – not in an outburst of popular joy and songs of freedom but in a rather mean and shabby, distorted little claustrophobic world, created for possibly the best of reasons but built on untruth. If that is what Becker meant then his film is understandably popular in the east of Germany – the people there have always known and understood this. It is also understandably popular with the bien pensants of the West, who are less capable of reading Aesopian language.

And yet, who knows? Perhaps they are right and I am wrong in my interpretation. Perhaps, German film-makers are suffering from ostalgie to the point when they are ready to make films that start off as the truth but fall into a sentimental and untruthful trap.

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