A generation ago, the East Germans led a peaceful revolution as the Berlin Wall collapsed, and shaping Germany into the country it is today. With the reunification of Germany came the end of the GDR, along with all of its horrors and all of its unique charms.
For the majority of the world, the main means of accessing GDR history and the unique experiences of its population is through art. More specifically: film.
GDR themed films make up a large chunk of Germany’s most internationally renowned films. The Local spoke with Dr Jochen Staat, a political scientist and GDR specialist at Free University in Berlin, about how these films are thought of in former East German..
Wolfgang Becker’s ‘tragicomedy’ follows Alex Kerner, a young East Berliner who tries to conceal the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the GDR from his staunch communist mother after she wakes up from a coma in order to prevent the shock of the news causing her a second heart attack.
Goodbye Lenin is arguably one of the most iconic German films, with almost every German language student watching the film at least once, or studying it in class. It’s a César winner and it’s both Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated.
The film captures East Germany through the lens of Ostalgie (nostalgia for the GDR) and shows the audience how becoming part of a capitalist Germany wasn’t as easy as putting up Coca Cola banners and opening a Burger King.
According to Staat, Goodbye Lenin was widely well-received by those in the former East Germany because it cleverly creates its own unique world. We don’t see the real East Germany, but rather we see Alex’s East Germany, the country he imagined and dreamed of as a child.
Through the opposing perspectives of Alex and his mother Christiane, we are offered an insight into the differing perceptions of the GDR according to generation, granting an East German audience multiple avenues to connect with Becker’s characters.
Sonnenallee (Sun Alley)
Sonnenallee is a coming of age comedy, released in 1999, about growing up in East Germany. For these “Eastie Boys”, illegal music from the West is an essential aspect of teenage rebellion.
The question of whether Sonnenalle, a comedy, does justice to the brutality of the East German regime has been up for debate for 20 years. In a review for
Der Spiegel, Marianne Wellershoff stated that the film glorified the GDR and played down the negative aspects of life in East Germany under Erich Honecker.
However, Staat pointed out that the film was well-received by East German viewers, and it is set towards the latter period of the GDR, when the regime was losing control over the population.
He notes that the character Wuchsel, who lives and (almost) dies by the Rolling Stones, is particularly relatable for a generation of former East Germans, who like him would scour the black market to find copies of records from the West.
Despite its lighthearted approach, there are moments in Sonnenallee that reminds the audience that life in the GDR isn’t all rock music and house parties, such as when Mario, another of the boys, is forced to sign up for military service in order to support his family.
And, when Wuchsel is shot by a border guard, surviving only because the bullet gets lodged in his Rolling Stones LP, it highlights how music really was lifeline for some East German youth.
Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)
Das Leben der Anderen focuses on the imposing presence of the Stasi in 1980s GDR, as Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) spies on a playwright before he becomes increasingly sympathetic to his struggle.
In Western eyes, a film about the horrors of the Stasi and the suffering that took place across East Germany would probably seem more historically accurate than comedies such as Goodbye Lenin and Sonnenallee.
However, Staadt, emphasises that every perception of the GDR is subjective and former East Germans would connect with films that most accurately reflect their experience.
For those who were teenagers when the Wall came down, and lived as the Regime lost its grip on the public, a comedy would potentially be more relatable. However for those who suffered at the hands of the Stasi and experienced the Regime during its earlier and tougher days, Das Leben der Anderen would probably be a harrowing watch that is uncomfortably close to home.
Staat stated that because they are an “easier” watch, it is generally the comedies that are most widely viewed in the former GDR.
Though not a film, Deutschland ’83 is the first German language series to air on a US network and is the most popular foreign language drama in the history of British television. The internationally successful series tells the story of a young East German, Martin Rauch, who is sent to West Germany to spy on behalf of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence agency.
Unlike the other films in this list, Deutschland ’83 doesn't focus particularly on East German life, rather dedicates equal amounts of airtime to both the Western and Eastern sides of the Wall.
Not only does this grant the audience access to both sides of a divided Germany, Staat highlights that viewers also experience varying levels of conflict through the drama. He explained this was key to the programme becoming a “sleeper hit” with viewers across Germany.
Whilst the series is based around political conflict on a wider scale, small-scale familial and personal conflicts plays a large role in the storylines. For example, the AIDS crisis and infidelity are just two of many personal issues to affect the politically-charged characters in the series.
In the 2012 film Barbara, life in rural East Germany is depicted, rather than city life in East Berlin. The title character is a doctor who formerly worked in the prestigious Charité hospital in East Berlin, but is transferred to a rural hospital by the Baltic Sea as a punishment from the State after applying to leave for the West. She is still monitored by the Stasi, even in this small town.
Staat highlights that Barbara’s situation wasn’t unusual for former East Germans, and its one that many from the former East Germany can relate to.
It was an ongoing and increasing problem for the GDR’s economy across its existence that many of its skilled workers were lost to the more-attractive seeming West, if they were willing to go through the tedious but possible process of an “Ausreiseantrag” (an application to leave the GDR).
For those applying to leave, they’d typically face social exclusion and denunciation, much like in Barbara’s experience, both as a punishment and as a deterrent to others.
What does the future look like for GDR focused films?
By remembering the GDR through iconic, classic films such as Goodbye Lenin, Das Leben der Anderen and Sonnenallee, Staat stated, it means we focus on the latter period of the GDR, the late 70s and 80s when the films were set.
A possible explanation for the tendency to set films in the late GDR is the this is the GDR that directors remember. The directors of these three films either weren’t alive, or were children, during the earlier half of the GDR in the 50s and 60s, when the regime was stricter and life was harder.
Whilst these iconic films are a means of accessing the history of a country that no longer exists, it’s important that we don’t forget the earlier history of the GDR.
There are newer films about the GDR, such as Der Zukunft Zugewandt (Facing the Future), set in 1952, about a woman’s arrival into the young GDR from a Soviet labour camp. Films such as these are bringing the GDR’s earlier days to greater international attention, and could well play a significant role in the future of German cinema.