by Christine Berberich
This week – 18th till 23rd of March 2019 – is Global Week. This is the week for the University to celebrate all things global and international and showcase diversity in all its many beautiful forms and manifestations. As Global Engagement Lead for SASHPL I have been involved in organising the event and was very pleased to be offering an introduction to a free screening of the German film Goodbye Lenin on Tuesday, 19th March in Eldon Building.
As one of the Global Engagement Leads for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences I am looking at ‘all things international’ and try and raise more awareness about available student mobilities. Studying or working and living abroad is an amazing experience and it would be great if as many of our students as possible could experience that. For me, international mobility is a subject close to my own heart: I grew up in Germany but right on not one but two borders – that with France and that with Luxembourg. As such, I was used to moving from country to country quickly and easily from a very early age: when I was little we would nip over to Luxembourg to stock up on coffee and fill up the car with cheaper petrol, and at weekends we’d often go to France to do our food shopping in the very tempting supermarkets there. Being pretty much at the heart of Europe also made it easy to travel further afield: Switzerland was just a couple of hours’ car journey away, Austria was within reasonably easy reach, and via Luxembourg it was quick to get to Belgium or even to the Netherlands.
The film we showed on Tuesday is not necessarily about international mobility – but it is about tearing down borders and, consequently, making that mobility much easier. Goodbye Lenin was first released in 2004. Directed by Wolfgang Becker, and giving a first leading role to Daniel Brühl, it tells the story of a dedicated young East German at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall: the boy, Alex Kerner, tries to hide the end of the GDR from his socialist mother, who has suffered a heart attack and has fallen into a coma after seeing her son arrested during an anti-GDR protest. Alex knows that any shock or surprise might kill his mother and he pretends that the GDR is still going strong while, all around him, East-German socialism and collectivism makes way for Western capitalism.
Although I grew up in the furthest West of West Germany, the GDR was still reasonably familiar to me, as I had family there: my grandfather and my one and only uncle, with my two only cousins. We visited them regularly before the fall of the Wall and for me these visits were always special as my relatives there seemed to live in what I, as a child, considered to be a pre-lapsarian idyll of fields and farms and unspoilt countryside. I have clear memories of my grandfather driving a horse and cart down the unpaved village road as late as the mid 1980s. As a child I only saw the fields and the freedom I could enjoy there which was very different from my own urban home in the West. Of course I did not see the hardships there – the fact that my auntie had to get up at the crack of dawn to drive into town in their dilapidated Trabant to queue outside a shop for hours on the off-chance of getting something, anything. Most of the time she didn’t even know what she was queuing for. The one thing that made me sad at the time, though, was the fact that my two cousins, nor my uncle, aunt or grandfather, could ever come to visit me in the West. That was, quite simply, not allowed. It was okay for us from the West to visit relatives in the East – only with Visas, of course, and on payment of a hefty daily ‘visitors fee’, payable, of course, in Western Deutschmarks.
Fast forward this by a few years – we are now in the late 80s – and I had acquired a number of East German penfriends: one of them was my friend Conny who was what can only be described as a ‘Westernphile’. He was fascinated by anything coming from the West, mainly, I suspect, because he didn’t know much about the West. It was a bit of a ‘forbidden fruit’ for him and tapped into ‘the grass is always greener elsewhere’ category. By the late 1980s he was obsessed with the American TV series ‘Miami Vice’ – which, of course, was not screened in East Germany. And he lived in a part of the GDR that could not receive any West TV at all – so he only knew about Miami Vice by hearsay. He eventually asked me if I could ‘record’ the episodes for him. VCR players where then unknown entities in East Germany, so I spent my Tuesday evenings sitting in front of the TV with a cassette recorder, simply recording the programmes audio track, and sending off regular parcels filled with cassettes to the East. As soon as cracks started appearing in the wall and visits from East to West were permitted, Conny visited me and I would take him sightseeing around the West, including taking him on a day trip to Paris. He was in capitalist heaven. Sadly, the end of the GDR also meant that we then lost touch as penfriends – until, many many years later, in the 2000s, I tracked him down via trusted Google – and found out, to my utter amazement, that he had opened a GDR Museum in his native home town in the East. After a few delirious years of reveling in consumer freedom he had come to realise that not everything in the West was great, and that there were things of merit in the East, too, that had been done away with far too quickly and far too gladly after the fall of the Wall. When he initially wanted to open the museum, the town fathers refused their support and he had to open the museum in his own flat. It quickly became so successful, though, that he had to move to larger premises not once but twice: the museum is now housed in a big former factory building and has a large motorpark outside, too, with East German Wartburg and Trabant cars. Every year, on May 1st, he holds a May Day parade – with local children dressed up in authentic ‘Junge Pioniere’ uniforms, and an Erich Honecker look alike. The public lap up these events and come from far afied – celebrating what can only be termed a piece of ‘Ostalgie’ – nostalgia for the former East – which is, of course, not entirely unproblematic. But that’s another story.
For me, on Tuesday, this story served as a perfect link to come back to Goodbye Lenin – which is a film similarly reveling in ‘Ostalgie’, with the main character trying to find East German produce to keep up the pretence of an unchanged country for his mother. It is a comedy, a light-hearted film – but one that focuses on the politically turbulent years of 1989 and 1990, culiminating in German unification on 3rd October 1990. Those two turbulent years saw many changes across Europe – the fall of the Berlin Wall rang in the end of the Cold War; the ‘Iron Curtain’ across Eastern Germany lifted, and mobility across formerly closed borders became a reality.
I hope you will also agree with me that today, we live in extremely turbulent times, too; times that might have far-reaching impact on generations to come. At a time when politicians leave migrants stranded on dinghies in the middle of the Mediterranean, when others try to stop the free movement of people across Europe or others again try to build walls to “protect” their borders it is probably more vital than ever before to watch a film that is, ultimately, about tearing down walls, opening up the world that little bit more, and bringing people together. Goodbye Lenin might be a light-hearted comedy – but one with the deeper meaning that borders, ultimately, are artificial and should not separate people.