skip to content or skip to search form

Die DDR lebt weiter—auf 79 qm!

(The title means, The German Democratic Republic lives on—in 79 square meters!)

Rose and I saw Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Good Bye Lenin! this weekend. If Good Bye Lenin is playing near you, you should think about seeing it—it’s fun. If you’ve never even heard of it, here’s what the official American web site has to say about it:

October 1989 was a bad time to fall into a coma if you lived in East Germany—and this is precisely what happens to Alex’s proudly socialist mother. Alex has a big problem on his hands when she suddenly awakens eight months later. Her heart is so weak that any shock might kill her. And what could be more shocking as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of capitalism in her beloved East Germany? To save his mother, Alex transforms the family apartment into an island of the past, a kind of socialist-era museum here his mother is lovingly duped into believing nothing has changed. What begins as a little white lie turns into a major scam as Alex’s sister and selected neighbors are recruited to maintain the elaborate ruse—and keep her believing that Lenin really did win after all!

Good Bye Lenin! has some thematic resonances with The Invisibles, the seventh and final volume of which I recently read. If the movie were a story in Invisibles, probably everybody would end up dosed with Key 23, the jars of pickles labeled Spreewald Pickles would cause them to hallucinate the counterfeit pickles inside as real Spreewald Pickles, and we’d wonder whether a jar of Netherlandish pickles relabeled as East German Spreewald pickles is really a jar of Spreewald pickles.

(A brief note of explanation: Alex’s mother Christiane must have East German food products, since she doesn’t know the East German brands have disappeared from the shelves and been replaced by vastly superior Western brands. Alex is driven to rummage through dumpsters to find old discarded East German-brand jars and boxes, so he can trick his mother by filling them with Western food. Christiane particularly craves Spreewald pickles, and Alex gives her capitalist pickles from Holland disguised as Spreewalds.)

This is an important question in The Invisibles: Key 23 (or Key 64, or Logoplasm) causes you to hallucinate words as the actual objects those words represent. Is seeing a mirror with “Diseased Face” scrawled on it the same as seeing your own diseased face? Is being shot with one of those cartoon guns with a “Pop” flag the same as being shot for real? How do you get a goose out of a bottle without breaking the bottle or killing the goose? “What fucking goose?” is Jack Frost’s answer to the riddle. Elfayed’s more explanatory answer: “There’s no goose, Jack. No bottle. Only words.” What is more real than language, than the stories we tell ourselves and each other? It’s not that there are only words, as Elfayed claims, but that our interaction with the world is mediated by language. (Of course, for Elfayed, there really are only words—his comic-book world is made of words and pictures—the set of pictorial that make up comics is a kind of language.) If you see a tree and you don’t know it’s a “tree” (or “Baum” or whatever), well, you’re not really seeing a tree, are you, but some nameless thing. But what if you don’t know the words “nameless” or “thing”? If you have no language, you can’t even see nothing, because there is no “nothing” for you. As David Fiore notes, this is a recurring theme in Grant Morrison’s work, and recurs also in Jorge Luis Borges’s stories.

Where Morrison and Borges use fantasy and science fictional elements, writer/director Wolfgang Becker relies on good old-fashioned lying. Alex can’t let his mother know the GDR is no more, so he constructs an increasingly elaborate lie. The dominance of language in our conception of reality takes on apocalyptic importance for Morrison and Borges—and it does for Becker, but in a different way. It’s a quiet apocalypse in Good Bye Lenin!, which is maybe surprising for a movie with the fall of the Berlin Wall at its center. It would be easy to put this theme on a global scale in a story about the fall of a Communist government (1984, e.g., although that’s obviously a story about a Communist government not falling), but Becker avoids the global scale by using Christiane’s bedroom as a microcosm. The effect of the juxtaposition of the backgrounded social upheaval in Germany with the foregrounded familial chaos is a story which manages to be low-key and apocalyptic all at once. Alex’s surprise as his lie takes on a life of its own is mixed up with the terror he and his friends and neighbors must feel as the world they knew ends and a new world is born around them. The sense of simultaneous fun and panic as Alex’s fictional GDR gets bigger and bigger is much like the sense you get reading The Invisible Kingdom, the last volume of The Invisibles, as the narrative threatens to spin entirely out of Morrison’s—and the reader’s—control.

Good Bye Lenin! always makes clear the separation between inside, where Alex’s fictional GDR continues strong, and outside, where the GDR has fallen and East and West Germany reunited. Viewed from the outside, East Berlin is unaffected by Alex’s ruse. Viewed from inside the apartment, though, the newly emerging social status quo comes to mean the opposite of what it means on the outside, as Alex seeks to mitigate his mother’s increasing exposure to the onslaught of capitalism by enlisting an amateur filmmaker friend to invent fake newscasts about the fall of West Germany and the triumph of socialism. This is not the Borgesian conception of reality as presented in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”:

How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlön, how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detailed evidence of an ordered planet? It would be futile to reply that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but orderly in accordance with divine laws (read: “inhuman laws”) that we can never quite manage to penetrate. Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

No, in Good Bye Lenin!, it’s easy to penetrate reality—just step outside the apartment. Alex’s mission, then is to keep his mother inside the apartment, and when she finally does step outside, to keep her thinking like she’s still inside.

The safety of inside is OK, but you can’t hide from the outside forever… right? It’s good of Alex to want to protect his mother from death—but who wants life when there’s nothing to life but lying in bed all day? Protecting yourself with your own little stories is fine, but at some point you have to either connect with the Big Story being told by the rest of the world, or admit your own insanity. Christiane’s unwillingness to emerge from inside the story she tells herself is what led to her heart attack in the first place—her husband had escaped East Berlin years ago and expected her to follow with their children, but she fell for the government propaganda, couldn’t bear to risk losing her children in an attempt to gain freedom, and so she abandoned her husband to the West, stayed in East Berlin and pretended she made a difference in the socialist regime by writing letters of petition demanding the state give the people better toasters. Now all she has to do to escape her self-created prison is step outside her apartment and see the new reunited Germany for what it really is, not the triumph of socialism but its defeat, and her son just can’t bear to let her go. Maybe a dose of the Big Story would kill her, but at least she’d be really alive in that Story before she died.

Still, Alex isn’t a bad person. He’s not judged or punished for his lie, but he’s also not successful in his lie. His girlfriend Lara, who thinks his desire to keep his mother locked up in bed is sort of sick (and she’s right about that), finally tells Christiane the truth. But they both value Alex’s good intentions, and they know as we all do the small happiness you can get sometimes from building up a little wall of protection against the scariness of the world—so they decide to give Alex a little protection and let him continue to believe he’s protecting his mother from the truth.

I think I’m going to stop here for now. Definitely more about The Invisibles later! And if you haven’t seen Good Bye Lenin!, see if it’s playing in a theater near you.