IMDb | Amazon | Blu-RayFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others–this year’s Oscar-winning film on life under the Stasi, the East German secret police–has often been favorably compared with Ulrich Becker’s 2003 comedy Good Bye, Lenin!. The claim is that it provides the necessary corrective to Lenin’s sentimental Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East), illustrating how the Stasi terror penetrated every pore of East Germans’ private lives. But is this really the case?
Like so many other films depicting the harshness of Communist regimes, The Lives of Others misses their true horror. How so? First, what sets the film’s plot in motion is the corrupt minister of culture, who wants to get rid of the top German Democratic Republic (GDR) playwright, Georg Dreyman, so he can pursue unimpeded an affair with Dreyman’s partner, the actress Christa-Maria. In this way, the horror that was inscribed into the very structure of the East German system is relegated to a mere personal whim. What’s lost is that the system would be no less terrifying without the minister’s personal corruption, even if it were run by only dedicated and “honest” bureaucrats.
IMDb | AmazonGood Bye Lenin! tells the story of a son whose mother, an honest GDR believer, has a heart attack on the night of the demonstrations that ultimately led to the regime’s demise in 1991. She survives, but the doctor warns the son that any traumatic experience could cause her death. With the help of a friend, the son thus stages for his mother, who is contained to her apartment, the smooth continuation of the GDR: Every evening, they air the video-recorded fake GDR news. Toward the film’s end, the hero says that the game got out of hand–the fiction staged for the dying mother became an alternate GDR, reinvented as it should have been.
Therein resides the key political question, beyond the rather boring topic of Ostalgie (which is not a real longing for the GDR, but the enactment of the real parting from it, the acquiring of a distance, de-traumatization): Was this dream of an “alternate GDR” inherent to the GDR itself? When, in the final fictional TV report, the new GDR leader (the first GDR astronaut) decides to open the borders, allowing the West German citizens to escape consumer terrorism, hopeless life struggle and racism, it is clear that the need for such a utopian escape is real.
To put it quite brutally, while Ostalgie is widely practiced in today’s Germany without causing ethical problems, one (for the time being, at least) cannot imagine publicly practicing a Nazi nostalgia: “Good Bye Hitler” instead of “Good Bye Lenin.” Doesn’t this bear witness to the fact that we are still aware of the emancipatory potential in Communism, which, distorted and thwarted as it was, was thoroughly missing in Fascism?
This, of course, in no way implies that Good Bye Lenin! is without faults. The weak point of the film is that (like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful) it sustains the ethics of protecting one’s illusions: It manipulates the threat of a new heart attack as the means to blackmail us into accepting the need to protect one’s fantasy as the highest ethical duty. Isn’t the film then unexpectedly endorsing Leo Strauss’ thesis on the need for a “noble lie”? So is it really that the emancipatory potential of Communism is only a “noble lie” to be staged and sustained for the naive believers, a lie which effectively only masks the ruthless violence of the Communist rule? Here mother is the “subject supposed to believe”: through her, others sustain their belief. (The irony is that it is usually the mother who is supposed to be the caretaker, protecting children from cruel reality.)
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on May 18th 2007.]