Monday, September 13, 2004

Good Bye, Lenin!

Thanks to the miracle that is Netflix, I watched Good Bye, Lenin! last night. Back in my days as a DINK, I would have gone to see it at the Ritz in Philly, but nowadays, city trips for such frivolity are constrained by the presence of Mr. The Booch.

Lenin was a lovely, bittersweet, albeit absurd comedy about a son's attempt to conceal the end of Sovietism in East Germany from his mother. Frau Kerner was a loyal communist, so when she awakens eight months after falling into a coma in 1989, her family is concerned that the shock may be too much for her weakened heart to take. They have to go to rediculous lengths to maintain the facade, out of which springs the comedy.

It's an interesting story, superbly performed by its cast, that can be appreciated just for its less intellectual merits. For those who like to think deeply about things, it also happens to be rich with parallelisms, which reflect on the tension that can arise between love and truth, as the characters make flawed attempts to give each other comfort by manufacturing stories—propaganda—about the way things really are. At the core, it's a movie about the fantastic human capacity for self-delusion and rationalization.

A scene of Lenin's statue being air-lifted to the scrap heap is worth the rental alone. It's a surreal image, but quite personal in its context, almost as if the bystander is watching an old friend being carted off to an unknown fate.

On a personal note that amounts to nothing more than an interesting anecdote, the movie brought back my own memories of traveling in Germany, including a brief trip to Eisenach (then in the GDR) in the summer of 1987. I remember so vividly a number of the things I saw there. Days before making the trip, I visited one of the fence lines from the West German side, somewhere close to Bad Hersfeld. A great many Westerners gathered at the point where a road simply ended at a fence. I didn't really know the whole context, but it seemed like something of a regular vigil. Everybody showed up for a brief period at midday, then left. While we stood in silence, staring at a mound that I gathered was an East German bunker, a family with a toddler came out of the last house on the block. The yard of their house was literally bounded by the iron curtain. In what I assumed to be safety training, if not ideology, the mother lowered herself to her child and repeated several times while pointing to the appropriate side, "Ost, schlect. West, gut." As the father of a toddler myself, I can't imagine having to raise a child in a place where I had to render such a stark and disheartening assessment of the world on a daily basis.

I had so many eye-opening experiences in just one day behind the iron curtain. I saw an elderly East German man brought nearly to tears by the sight of my two teenage companions buying full trays of pastries that only cost them about a dime each. (Ashamed, I asked if we could just have things wrapped and quietly leave.) I remember a soldier tapping me on the shoulder with the butt of his rifle when I was found perusing a propaganda text on supposed U.S. military atrocities in Grenada. (I also remember coming to grips in that same bookstore with true state censorship—not a single literary work published by a Western author after World War II.) I tried to help an elderly East German woman who had fallen in front of me at the post office. When she saw my clothes and heard my accent, she hurried away from me, limping badly.

There are so many places in the world where people still live under the soul-crushing weight of repressive states. Citizens of wealthy, industrialized democracies are fortunate for the liberties we have; it's rarefied air. I can only hope that the descendents of today's Germany, having freed themselves of the terrible yoke of totalitarianism, will never find themselves torn apart or imprisoned within walls again.


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