Since the middle of the 1990s the phenomenon of “Ostalgie”, (1) an increasing nostalgia for the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), conveyed in post unification German literature, TV, and especially films like Sonnenallee (Sun Alley, Leander Haußmann, 1999) and Good Bye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003), has been widely discussed in German as well as international scholarship concerning its background, development and potentially dangerous effects. In more recent publications on the subject several film and literary scholars talk about the reverse concept, “Westalgie”, a supposed nostalgia for the old West, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which they see employed in several novels and cinematic works of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even though the term itself is in most publications not defined beyond it’s differentiation from “Ostalgie”, and the films quoted are in the majority of cases not thoroughly analyzed, Leander Haußmann’s literary adaptation Herr Lehmann (Berlin Blues, 2003), set in West Berlin’s bohemian Kreuzberg district in the months before the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989, is more often than not mentioned as a prime example of this trend.
In this article I will outline the background of “Ostalgie”, then define the rather problematic concept of “Westalgie”, and ultimately analyze Herr Lehmann for its very specific take on the subject.
The term “Ostalgie” was coined by East German cabaret artist Uwe Steimler as the title of one of his cabaret programs on regional East German TV channel MDR in 1992. Soon after, people began to use the expression when referring to a shift in cultural representation of the former GDR, away from the reduction of its past to a totalitarian Stasi state, to the foregrounding and appreciation of the normal everyday life of the majority of the population and all the commodities and cultural products connected with it. Especially in East Germany, where many people felt the memories of their pre-unification lives had been devalued and largely ignored through the process of unification and the subsequent westernization of their part of the country, this chance of a positive take on the past was quickly adopted and embraced. It seemed to be an important step for people to allow themselves to detach their personal experiences in the GDR from the political background they had to come to terms with, since the former, according to Manuela Glaab, did “not necessarily reflect socialist values but might be an attempt by East Germans to reconcile themselves with the past.” (2) Anke Pinkert describes the situation of former GDR citizens as follows: “Although East Germans never moved geographically, they migrated into a new economic, political and cultural space, which displaced previous sets of identifications and required their reformulation and translation.” (3) Their celebration of past GDR common culture can thus be seen as a way of recuperating their right to a memory, collective as well as individual, of an everyday life that had been taken away from them in an instant. Ironically, the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) goal had always been to create a distinctive common feeling of a ‘GDR people’ while the population kept seeing themselves as Germans and only started to indulge in their “Easternness” when the communist regime had been long gone. The motivations behind this phenomenon are not purely nostalgic ones though, but also a growing skepticism towards the West and disappointment and dissatisfaction about the reality after unification, which didn’t bring the ‘blooming landscapes’ that politicians had promised and the people had been eager to believe in at first. “Ostalgie” is thus not only a revival, but also a form of differentiation from the West and of escapism to a vanished country, “idealizing it as a land uncontaminated by capitalism’s vicious selfishness.” (4) There are discussions around the more negative notions of “Ostalgic” tendencies, including concerns about the following dangers immanent in the glorification of the GDR past: Cooke describes the emergence of a distinctive East German self-concept by way of “Ostalgie” as a “selective form of amnesia” (5) causing an “unsettling influence in the new Germany, undermining (…) the project of inner-German unification”, (6) a “worrying development helping to keep alive anti-democratic principles” (7) by viewing the totalitarian state through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.Nonetheless, the “Ostalgie” wave took over the East in storm, and with some delay also reached the old West German states, in the form of “Ostalgic” TV shows, a demand for memorabilia from the GDR and the nationwide success of movies like Sonnenallee and Good Bye Lenin! To put it in Cooke’s words, by 2004 “the GDR had become ‘hip’.” (8)
Even though the two biggest so-called “Ostalgie”movies, Sonnenallee and Good Bye Lenin! were huge successes with East and West German audiences, they caused quite some controversy among film critics and scholars. Sonnenallee, Haußmann’s 1970s depiction of a group of teenagers, particularly lanky but eloquent Micha (Alexander Beyer), coming of age in East Berlin, literally next to the Wall, became known and popular for it’s comedic, at times satirical and über-real depiction of life under the communist regime. While the very global experience of youth, friendship, drugs, and first love offers potential for identification for a very wide audience, the ironic display of specific elements typical for GDR life, the fetishization of East German objects on the one hand and the effects of the economy of scarcity and the ubiquitous representatives of the state on the other, can be seen as a form of “Ostalgie”, but at the same time as a critique of it. It is here used as a “self-reflexive vehicle for exploring the complex relationship of easterners themselves to this history”, (9) a “self-conscious revisitation of the past through the lens of the present” (10) and might thus help to “overcome a process of historical elision” (11) and at the same time contribute to “the normalization of German-German relations in the popular imagination.” (12) Cooke also quotes more negative receptions of the film though, assessing it as “proof positive of the dangers of “Ostalgie”, (13) “a musical with Erich Honecker as the Fiddler on the Roof in which the real tensions of life in the east had been covered up with cheap “Ostalgie””, (14) while Daniela Berghahn opens up the question, whether “this grotesque satire (was) an appropriate reassessment of life under communism” or if it is not “rather unethical to use comedy to deflect from the inhumanity of the GDR’s totalitarian system.” (15) The film’s success with both, the East and West German audiences as well as the East German backgrounds of the writer and the director, which were argued to lend the film an unassailable authenticity, did not completely dissolve those concerns.
Like Sonnenallee, 4 years later Good Bye Lenin! presents a universal setup of family relationships and young love, again set in East Berlin but this time during the year after the fall of the Wall, and combines them with a nostalgic representation of everyday life in the just collapsed GDR: 20-year old Alex (Daniel Brühl) recreates the GDR in the confined space of his family’s apartment to spare his mother, who has just come out of a long time coma, from the potentially fatal shock she might suffer when finding out about the political and societal developments over the past months. Even though the film was produced with a largely West German cast and crew, including the writer/director Becker and main actor Daniel Brühl, it employs “Ostalgie” in a similar way to Sonnenallee, with two significant differences: First of all, in Good Bye Lenin! a picture of the glorious East is drawn in direct contrast to the advantages and disadvantages of the outside reality of westernization, and second, the GDR Alex builds for his mother, including fake news reports he shoots with his new West German friend Denis (Florian Lukas), is not completely authentic. As the protagonist openly admits in a voice over while watching his final news clip, which attempts to explain the presence of a growing number of West Germans in East Berlin with the collapse of the FRG: “Somehow, my scheme had taken on a life of its own. The GDR I created for my mother increasingly became the country I might have wished for myself.” This situation of a quasi simultaneous existence of the GDR and a unified German state allows for a variety of different attitudes among the characters: while Alex’s sister blatantly rejects everything connected to the past and wholeheartedly embraces the Western present and future, their elderly neighbors distrust unification and see Alex’s scheme as a welcome revival of the good old times. Alex himself is caught in between celebrating his newfound freedom and longing for the past and the childhood he has lost. Through this variety of insights, according to Cooke, the film “highlights the hybrid status of the very unified state itself, a state which is made up of two different, but interlocked cultural traditions, both of which must be understood and respected if inner unity is to be achieved.” (16) This way the film accredits the sense of a distinctive Eastern cultural identity while also validating the different takes on and ways to deal with unification. It thereby acknowledges the “crucial role of the past and memory in the construction of both an individual and national sense of identity.” (17) Like Sonnenallee, Good Bye Lenin! received reviews decrying the dangers of an uncritical, sentimental attitude of “Ostalgie”, but the national and international success of the movie, including Germany’s choice for the Foreign Language Academy Award, seemed to ease over most of those concerns.
While Sonnenallee and Good Bye Lenin! are usually discussed in connection with “Ostalgie”, Cooke sees in their representation of the East also an exhibition of a nostalgic longing for aspects of the pre-unification West, (18) or so-called “Westalgie”. This up to now much less discussed phenomenon was first observed in post unification literature, like Matthias Politicky’s Weiberroman (1997), Frank Goosen’s Liegen Lernen (2000) and Sven Regener’s Herr Lehmann (2001) and soon also became a cinematic subject, when the latter two books were turned into successful films.
The idea of “Westalgie” seems to be somewhat redundant at first, since the changes in the FRG after the fall of the Wall are by far not as fundamental as in the GDR – the West German population did not need to get used to a new political, economic and legal system, nor did they have to disregard their past from one day to the other as a negative memory from an oppressive totalitarian country. Therefore, to simply define “Westalgie” as a reverse form of “Ostalgie”, a straightforward nostalgia for the old FRG, its commodities and everyday culture before unification, would mean completely disregarding the historical and sociological circumstances. The specific sense of “East Germanness” connected with “Ostalgie” is also a product of differentiation from the Western-reference culture; to be from the East means explicitly not being from the West, while West German identity was not defined through distinguishing themselves from the people in the GDR. The influences and discourses shaping the self-image of the FRG people were rather to be found in the increasingly globalized character of the entire Western world. As Andrew Plowman describes it: “’West Germanness’ (…) is refracted through the lens of a standardized and transnational popular culture.” (19) A film like Benjamin Quabeck’s Verschwende deine Jugend (Play It Loud!, 2003), quoted by Sabine Hake as an example of “Westalgie”, (20) can thus be seen as a nostalgic piece on early 80s youth and music subculture in Munich, but its relevance in terms of a retrospective sentimentally about pre-unification FRG culture is questionable, since the content as well as the majority of cultural markers in the movie are not explicitly West German but rather Western in a more global sense. Also, unlike in the case of “Ostalgic” films, the general political and economic frame of reference had not radically changed between the historical background of the story and the moment of its reception 30 years later, thus allowing for general nostalgia, but not automatically justifying “Westalgie”. A film that does display a sense of “Westalgie”, if in a rather paradoxical way, is Die Unberührbare (No Place to Go, Oskar Roehler, 2000) in which the main character, a West German writer, struggles with unification because she “has always constructed the East as a utopian “other” through which she defined her dissident position within the FRG, giving her an ideological point of comparison, which she employed to critique Western capitalism.” (21) The fall of the Wall robs her of her point of reference, and from that day on she yearns for the times of a divided Germany and the binarism of communist/capitalist societies, because she feels she has lost her purpose without a regime to define herself in opposition to in order to sympathize with the other. This is a rather unique take on “Westalgie” though, that cannot be seen as the standard use of the concept.
Herr Lehmann is set in the fall of 1989 in the secluded bohemian West Berlin district of Kreuzberg, which up to 1989 was surrounded on three sides by the wall and thus felt like an isolated microcosm within the already insular location of the walled in city. It depicts the stagnant everyday life of a group of young West Germans, most of whom have moved to West Berlin from the FRG to evade being drafted for military service or to follow a generally more relaxed lifestyle with less pressure and little responsibilities in the most segregated part of the country. Herr Lehmann (Christian Ulmen), about to turn 30 and for that reason generally jokingly called by his last name but still referred to with the familiar form of ‘you’, is the stereotype of a lethargic 80s Kreuzberger. He sleeps late, works in a dive bar, spends the time in between drinking beer and leading redundant pseudo philosophical discussions, and is not interested in anything outside of his neighbourhood, least of all the country on the other side of the Wall. The GDR is accepted as a given but is mainly ignored in the lives of the Kreuzberg people. The film’s dramatic arc, corresponding with the lifestyle of its characters, is rather flat – Herr Lehmann, meets, falls for and loses a girl, Katrin (Katja Danowski), reluctantly and unsuccessfully tries to deliver money to a relative in East Berlin for his parents, who visit their son from the FRG, and finally takes care of his best friend, the bar tender and artist Karl (Detlev Buck), when he has a nervous breakdown. All the while, he does not react to or even notice the little signs of change around him, the newspaper headlines talking about a “diffident rumble in the GDR”, the demonstrations on TV after his first sex with Katrin, or his parents stating: “There’s a lot going on in East Berlin at the moment. Must be really interesting.” to which Herr Lehmann just replies: “What is it with your obsession with the East?” Ironically, for Herr Lehmann, moving to West Berlin and thus onto an island in the middle of the GDR meant getting further away from having to worry or even think about the German division, thus allowing the comfortable position of willful ignorance. Julia Hell and Johannes von Moltke argue that in Herr Lehmann [and also in Liegen Lernen] we find a “more simplistic discourse on “Westalgie”through [the films’] construction of strictly delimited, utopian spaces in West Berlin.” (22) Thus they see the lack of recognition of the country around West Berlin as a factor contributing to the “Westalgic” notion of the films.
In Sonnenallee the Wall is a constant presence, nearly a character in the film, visible in most of the exterior shots and referred to in multiple ways throughout the film – the most memorable instance being Micha and his best friend, drugged on a mixture of herbal rheumatism remedy and East German cola, urinating from a balcony right over the Wall onto the Western side of Berlin. Even though Herr Lehmann lives in equal proximity to the Wall it is never prominently shown, mentioned or otherwise recognized until the protagonist is forced to cross the German-German border in order to illegally deliver his parents’ money to a relative in East Berlin – and fails. Even in this scene, the actual border is not shown, but instead an interrogation room to which Herr Lehmann is brought after being refused entrance to the GDR. During his questioning by a completely humourless border official, Lehmann’s ignorance of East Germany and reluctance to engage with it at all become more than clear. At first he tries to quip his way out of the situation, then followed by an attempt at his usual hair-splitting philosophizing, which the official puts an end to by recommending that Lehmann “think before you speak.” This is the first instance in which Herr Lehmann realizes there is a more serious life out there beyond Kreuzberg, and even though this does not change his ways immediately, it sows the first seed in his mind.
There are three experiences that function as catalysts for Lehmann to change his attitude towards his bohemian life style and make the decision to move forward with his life: First, when Katrin leaves him for Kristall-Rainer (Janek Rieke), he realizes that leading a stagnant life ultimately means being left behind by the people around him, who keep moving. After this letdown, Lehmann’s best friend Karl suffers a nervous breakdown because he is equally scared of his upcoming art exhibition being a huge success and a complete failure, since the former would mean having to change his Kreuzberg life style, and the latter would indicate he might never get out of it at all. In his delusional state, Karl references the more symbolic level of growing up in the movie, that is, looking beyond the Wall and accepting the (Eastern) world outside, as he says to Lehmann “We need to engage more with the East” to which Lehmann, still in denial, responds “The East can wait. Lie down now.” On the one hand this situation scares Lehmann out of his lethargy since it demonstrates to him how he might end up himself if he does not take action; on the other hand, it shows him for the first time taking responsibility for somebody else. The last instance happens later that same night, when Lehmann hears about the Wall being opened while sitting in a bar about two blocks away from this world changing event, which symbolically coincides with a fundamental change in his own existence: the decision to grow up and lead a more responsible life. He watches the first images of people celebrating on the Wall and around Brandenburg Gate on the bar’s TV, while calmly finishing a beer with one of his Kreuzberg acquaintances, Sylvio (Tim Fischer). The following conversation ensues:
Herr Lehmann: “The wall’s coming down.”
Sylvio: “What does that mean?”
Herr Lehmann: “No idea. That they’ll all be coming over now.”
Sylvio: “Maybe we should go look.”
Herr Lehmann: “Drink up first.”
Like the protagonists in several West German post unification films, Herr Lehmann first resorts to “the passive consumption of the events of 9 November 1989 as a televisual spectacle.” (23) While he realizes that there are changes already happening on a personal as well as on a global level, which he will not be able (and does not want) to stop anymore, he wants to hold on to his old Kreuzberg life for just another moment before he can welcome the arrival of a new era. In contrast to the other protagonists though, Herr Lehmann finally gets out of his passive state in the end and joins the crowds celebrating the fall of the Wall at the site of the actual event, which is also the instance the Wall is finally really shown in the film and also seen and recognized by its protagonist. Ironically this happens at the moment when, after 28 years, on the evening of Herr Lehmann’s 30th birthday, this symbol of division and, in Lehmann’s case, seclusion is dismantled.
To get closer to the take on nostalgia for the old West in Haußmann’s film, it is interesting to look at what actually has changed in the West of the republic due to unification and might thus be something to look back on with a sentimental attitude: After the fall of the Wall, the FRG people moved from a “prosperous, comfortable and self-contained West during the Cold War era” (24) to a reunited country, in which taxes were raised by the so-called Solidarity Supplement to support the struggling East, and the rather moderate political landscape changed to a spectrum including a strong leftist and an extreme right-wing party, which reflected the change of political moods within the country. None of this plays a direct role in Herr Lehmann, but the representation of a passive, secluded, utopian space the Germans in West Berlin created for themselves allows for an interpretation as nostalgia for the escapism from the status quo that was possible before the Wall came down and that found an end in the events leading up to unification. Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the background of the authors of these “Westalgic” films. In the case of Liegen Lernen and Herr Lehmann, the authors of the novels the films are based on, Frank Goosen and Sven Regener, are members of the so-called ‘generation of 78’, who came of age around the late 70s and early to mid 80s. Cooke agrees with Stuart Taberner in that the nostalgia in these two novels and subsequently the two films “reveals an attempt by this generation to mark its difference from the politically engaged ‘generation of 68’ (…) and the hedonistic ‘generation of 89’.” (25) It is thus the representation of a generation trying to find their position in between these two extremes of being overtly politically conscious and active as the previous generation and replacing political idealism completely with pop culture as did the successive generation. Cooke sees the emergence of their take on the time period around the fall of the Wall as a sign “for this generation to come of age and to begin to shape the country in a fashion more to their liking.” (26) That this goes along with a certain sentimental nostalgia for the time left behind seems only natural.
Thus, in Herr Lehmann, two modes of “Westalgie”can be distinguished: The presentation of a comfortable bohemian lifestyle in blissful ignorance can either be seen specifically as nostalgia for the old West Berlin with its special status and the possibility of hiding from reality. Or, on a different level, Herr Lehmann’s loss of the carefree times of youth and the need to grow up and take responsibility can be taken symbolically as a representation of the ‘generation of 78’ and/or the whole of the FRG, a country and a people who had to ‘grow up’ and ‘take responsibility’ in order for unification to be successful; but might look back nostalgically to the good old times when they did not need to be concerned about these issues.
- “Ostalgie” is German word play for “East” and “nostalgia”, thus literally translating as “Eastalgia.”
- Manuela Glaab, “Viewing ‘the Other’: How East Sees West and West Sees East,” in East German Distinctiveness in a Unified Germany, ed. Jonathan Grix and Paul Cooke (Birmingham: University of Birmingham Press, 2002), 83.
- Anke Pinkert, Film and Memory in East Germany (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008), 205.
- Paul Cooke, Representing East Germany Since Unification: From Colonization to Nostalgia (Oxford & New York: Berg, 2005), 8.
- Ibid, 8.
- Ibid, 104.
- Ibid, 104.
- Ibid, vii.
- Ibid, 119.
- Ibid, 116.
- Ibid, 114.
- Seán Allan, “Ostalgie, Fantasy and the Normalization of East-West Relations in Post-Unification Comedy,” in German Cinema Since Unification, ed. David Clarke (London & New York: Continuum, 2006), 106.
- Cooke, Representing East Germany Since Unification, 111.
- Manuela Berghahn, “East German Cinema after Unification.” in German Cinema Since Unification, ed. by David Clarke (London & New York: Continuum, 2006).
- Cooke, Representing East Germany Since Unification, 128.
- Allan, “Ostalgie, Fantasy and the Normalization of East-West Relations in Post-Unification Comedy”, 123.
- Cooke, Representing East Germany Since Unification, 105.
- Andrew Plowman, “Westalgie? Nostalgia for the “Old” Federal Republic in Recent German Prose,” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 40, no. 3 (September 2004), 257.
- Sabine Hake, German National Cinema (London & New York: Routledge, 2008), 210.
- Cooke, Representing East Germany Since Unification, 125.
- Julia Hell and Johannes von Moltke “Unification Effects: Imaginary Landscapes of the Berlin Republic.” The Germanic Review 80, no. 1 (Winter 2005), 86.
- Plowman, “Westalgie? Nostalgia for the “Old” Federal Republic in Recent German Prose”, 256.
- Cooke, Representing East Germany Since Unification, 125.
- Ibid, 119.