Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ostalgie*: Thoughts of a Country Deceased

Back in the early seventies, my father had a visitor from East Germany. I was very eager to meet him. For an East German to visit a Western country, there were two prerequisites. One was membership in the Socialist Unity Party. The second was that some members of the immediate family remain behind as collateral against defection. The only people who were allowed out of the country without meeting these conditions were senior citizens. If a retiree left East Germany, he was relieving the state of a financial burden. One less pension to pay helped the German Democratic Republic balance its books.

My father's business acquaintance was not able to visit us. The State Department's travel restrictions on him precluded his visiting the Boston suburbs. My father spoke with the man at some length on topics outside commercial concerns. He had little doubt that the man was well trained in fielding the questions of westerners. Certainly the risks of an overly candid remark were not worth the possible consequences.

One thing he did say in praise of East Germany was that it provided security for its citizens. There was no unemployment. The people were expected to contribute to the collective good with work and were provided with opportunities to do so. My father was tactful enough not to ask the man about the Berlin Wall and those shot trying to escape East Germany. The official line was that the wall was built to keep out capitalist infiltrators. saying such a thing with a straight face can be taxing.

One thing I noted when visiting East Berlin was the absence of commercial advertisements and the omnipresence of political slogans. Since it was the second of May, many displays from the May day parade were still up. The point remained that shaping the mind of the citizen was a matter of collective concern. Could democracy benefit from such an attitude? I believe it could. Can democracy survive such a world view? I don't know.

East Germany produced some extraordinarily good films through DEFA, its official film company. "The Legend of Paul and Paula", an offbeat love story set in a working class section of East Berlin. The movie actually contributed to the meteoric rise of the Puhdys on the German pop music scene.

There was another film, "Bear Ye One Another's Burdens." It was made in the 1950's and dealt with a Christian minister and a communist part leader who became room mates in a tubercular sanitarium. The film took a penetrating look at the common aspects of faith in G-d and faith in communism. The film was banned for more than thirty tears. Along with "The Murderers Among Us, it is a classic not only among East German films but also in World Cinema as well. I do not mean to slight the many good films from DEFA. These two are simply among my favourites.

Like any place else, East Germany had its wretchedly awful films. "Hot Summer" was made in 1967 in East Germany. It was about a group of women taking a summer vacation together who found that an obnoxious group of men who were their contemporaries had identical travel plans. From its plot to its acting to its photography, the film is so shockingly bad that I am drawn to it by the sheer force of total astonishment. Being subjected to such a film would have made me think of trying to escape East Germany. I wonder how many escapes were fueled by the mind numbing awfulness of this movie.

I like to take the pulse of any country that interests me by taking as many vital signs as possible. Films often offer glimpses not intended by the director. Barry Farber once told a story on his show about a 1930's Soviet propaganda film showing police carrying away striking workers from a factory in the US. The film was very quickly withdrawn. Russians who watched the newsreel could not keep their eyes off the feet of the workers. They were amazed at the high quality of American shoes and that so well shod a worker needed to go on strike.

It is in this spirit that I watch East German films. There are details that assume major significance to me that might be trivial to a native viewer. A movie gives me a chance to be far more widely traveled than I would otherwise be.

One thing that I noted in an East German commercial for consumer goods was the way it interspersed an otherwise conventional commercial with footage and talk about the nation's economic goals. It is quite different from how we view things in the west.

When one is watching or studying a country other than one's own, a multitude of small details eventually assume critical mass and broaden one's understanding. Now an entire list of communist countries no longer exists. The chronology of their rise and fall tells precious little about them. With this article, I offer my readers a small assortment of glimpses to create the atmosphere in which that time sequence progressed.

The man who visited my father almost forty years ago may still be living. If so, he is an old man predeceased by his country. Does he remember the visit with my father. When his country died, and with it his fear, what was his eulogy? When he saw the Berlin Wall come down, what new angst rose from the ashes?


From top to bottom 1) Hot Summer (Heiszer Sommer) opening dance sequence
2) 1958 East German commercial
3) Opening sequence from "The Legend of Paul and Paula

*Ostalgie is a German word meaning "nostalgia for the East" , referring to the occasionally fond memories of some of the residents of the former East Germany

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