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das leben der anderen

I went to see The Lives of Others last night, and it's the best film I've seen in a long time. I couldn't stop thinking about it afterwards, and I actually dreamed in German last night. That's how powerful it was - it made me dream in bad German! In fact, I've been immersed in all things Ossi recently - I just finished reading Anna Funder's Stasiland, which I highly recommend, and which, like the film, is very moving. It's also absolutely gripping and reminded me how much I didn't really know about that era, despite my Germanic studies. I started studying German at college in 1993, and in our first year we did a course called Landeskunde, which was basically an introduction to modern German society and history - of course, it being 1993, there was a huge emphasis on the Wende (as the period of collapse and reunification is known - it basically means turn or turning point) and the issues of reunification; but the emphasis was on the peaceful protests and the various organisations that drove them rather than the doings of the state they were protesting against.

The Lives of Others ends in the early '90s, just a couple of years before I went to Berlin for the first time. I spent the summer of 1995 in Berlin, living in a sublet apartment in the central western district of Charlottenburg, a big, airy, beautiful apartment that was incredibly cheap - less than DM100 a month, I think - because it was still being rented for pre-Wende West Berlin subsidised rates. When you go to Berlin now, you can't necessarily tell the difference between the west and the eastern districts; back then it was unmistakable, not least because a lot of the eastern areas with old buildings hadn't been restored to perfection after the war, so there were bullet holes up to adult male head level in lots of them, and even those that didn't bear literal battle scars tended to look pretty raggedy. Berlin has changed enormously since then - the difference between Unter den Linden - the pre-war central boulevard that became a rather bleak street in east Berlin and is now a bustling boulevard again - in 1995 and 2007 is almost surreal; it looks like a different city.

And I feel a hot rush of shame when I remember the way my friends and I used to joke lightheartedly that summer about Ossi style, and how you knew you were in the east when you saw lots of mullets, and afterwards I realised how shitty that was, for a bunch of 19 year old snotty hipsters to make jokes about the fashion sense of slightly shell-shocked people who had grown up in a grim country, brought it down in a peaceful revolution, and then found their world totally pulled out from under their feet and their economy in chaos. I mean, we weren't totally stupid and awful, we felt that we were on their side, we didn't mind not being able to find any work that summer because knew that we didn't deserve to get jobs when so many Ossis were out of work, we loved their side of the city with a passion, but still...we laughed at their haircuts. And they deserved better than that. In the film, Wiesler, the Stasi agent, always wears an ugly grey nylon jacket with corduroy shoulder patches, zipped right up over his shirt and tie. There was something about it, about the way he wore it, that was almost unbearably poignant, that made me want to cry. I think it was partly because it matched the character's drab, restrained, beauty-free life, and partly because something about it reminded me of those 1995 East Berliners.

Anyway. The Lives of Others is, as my fellow former-Germanist sister Busta J put it in a text, super fantastisch, whether you know anything about Berlin or not. Go and see it.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 15th, 2007 08:49 pm (UTC)
You've reminded me of when I was in Berlin, in 1989, before the Wall came down. And I and a friend went over to East Berlin for the day, and the major memory I have is of that evening, when we went to get dinner in some hotel, and there was this bunch of East German soldiers at a nearby table, all looking at us, and us looking back, and neither side daring to actually act on the looks, because they weren't allowed to "fraternise with the enemy" then, and we both knew it. It was a bittersweet meal.
Apr. 16th, 2007 08:58 am (UTC)
Wow, that's very sad. Have you been back to Berlin since? It changed so much between '95 and my next visit in 2004, but I can assume the difference between '89 and '95 was also pretty big.
Apr. 16th, 2007 06:21 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, I haven't managed to get back there since. I imagine I'd hardly recognise the city at all now.
Apr. 16th, 2007 12:58 pm (UTC)
We kind of gently and privately mocked the grown-ups' clothes in the spring of 1998, which I don't feel bad about because it was all very good-natured and it would be people who were ten to fifteen years older than us, who we got on with very well, and, you know, had clearly made a choice that a black stretch lace shirt over a black bra was a great look for work. And like you, we did feel very strongly identified with East Germany at the time, and got really annoyed with a Wessie friend who came over and ooh'd and aaah'd over how cute all the Socialist architecture was.

But two years later in Osnabrück I was in a German class and described a couple I knew as wearing matching coloured leather jackets with contrast trim as "total Ostdeutsch", and there was a Polish girl in the class (who, incidentally, was a total babe and looked awesome) and she just gave me this look of absolute loathing, and I was so utterly ashamed. It was one of those unfortunate conversations where you start saying something, realise where it's going, but you don't have the same ability to backtrack and get yourself out of the hole in a foreign language. Aah, it was awful. I still feel bad about that.
Apr. 16th, 2007 02:22 pm (UTC)
That "total Ostdeutsch" remark kind of sums up the way we joked about it. And afterwards I did, and do, feel really bad about it. We certainly didn't think we were sneering at them, because, like you said, we identified with them and their city, but of course, joking about people's funny-to-us clothes really was sneering, whether we saw it that way or not.

There was one sight, though, that I still can't help finding funny - we saw a family - mother, father and two kids - out for a stroll, and not only did they all have identical, dramatic mullets, but one of the little kids was pushing a troll doll in a toy buggy - and its wild pink hair had been cut into a mulllet too!
Apr. 16th, 2007 01:13 pm (UTC)
I nearly went to see that last night, but there was too much time difference between when it was on and when I was there, and I was too tired. You've made me decide to go and see it as soon as I can though.

I read Stasiland when it was first published in Australia and again recently -- I am determined to make my first visit to Berlin this summer (especially after reading Zoo Station over the weekend as well) and I must pick your brain before I go. It still strikes me as such a big difference there is the world that all swivels around '89 and '90. I remember having the secure knowledge that there would eventually be a war, and that it would be horrible, and that it would be between the West and the Soviet Bloc. (God I was a strange child.) And then everything suddenly changed, and my god. Dad was in Berlin the week before last and he said there still seemed to be a strong East v West social disconnect -- was that your experience?

Have you read Eva Hoffman's excellent Exit into History? It deals with changes in the former Bloc countries in the early '90s. I've just picked up Cafe Europa as well -- I'll let you know how it reads...

In semi-related bizarre commentary: My dad's trying to convince me to buy a flat in the old East Berlin -- I'm not sure why but he thinks them terribly cheap and a good investment. I can't sort that out in my head myself.
Apr. 16th, 2007 01:28 pm (UTC)
Oooh, Exit into History sounds good (I just googled it and saw it actually came out in the early '90s). Actually, I just got a book (auf deutsch, alas for non-German-speakers, and it hasn't been translated) from Amazon.de by an Ossi journalist who was, like me, born in 1975, and how the Wende became this big gulf between his generation and their parents. It arrived today and I've just flicked through it so far, but it looks really interesting.

Do go and see The Lives of Others - it really is fantastic, especially if you've read Stasiland! And I strongly recommend a trip to Berlin - I think it's my favourite city in the world, although of course glitzfrau and biascut know 21st century Berlin much better than I do!

And yeah, there does seem to be a big gulf between East Berliners and Wessis - I read an article in Das Magazin about the great-grandchildren of a famous DDR politician who live in Berlin. They're not obsessed with their famous family or indeed the DDR or anything, but one of them really, really hated Wessis who'd moved to Berlin. She didn't at all mind the foreigners who'd arrived there, but she had a big problem with the west Germans who, she felt, had always patronised the Ossis and now wanted to "take over" their cool city. Whenever she was in one of the hipster districts like Friedrichshain she'd exaggerate her Berlin accent to show she was a local.

Apartments in Berlin - not just the east, in fact the trendy areas are in the east - are incredibly cheap and we considered buying one last year when we were there, but we would have only done so if we'd moved to Berlin and lived there (which we were seriously considering before I got my job). I do hate the idea of westerners driving up the property prices and becoming absentee landlords so the poor Berliners can't afford to buy places in their own city.
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