Wolfgang Becker never lived in the German Democratic Republic, but he can still smell it. The director of Good Bye, Lenin!, a partially allegorical, mostly comic look at one East Berlin family in the months before the GDR vanished for good, moved to West Berlin in 1974.
“It was just a few kilometers away,” recalls the graying 49-year-old filmmaker, who’s visiting Washington with his movie’s boyish star, 25-year old Daniel Brühl. “If the wind came from the east, you could smell the East. It was a mixture of coal—they heated just with coal—and a special kind of cleaning stuff.
“They didn’t have the choice between 30 or 40 cleaning liquids. They just had one. Every building smelled the same. It took years for that smell to go away. The first three, four years [after reunification], when you entered a building, it was like”—he sniffs—“‘That’s the smell of the GDR.’”
It’s fitting that Becker strongly remembers East German cleaning fluid, because many people who saw Good Bye, Lenin! in Germany, where the film initially outgrossed Harry Potter, were flooded with memories of the everyday East German products that had evaporated almost as quickly as the country. This reaction was part of what German newspaper and TV commentators dubbed Ostalgie, punning on the German word for “east,” ost.
Asked about the phenomenon, Becker initially dismisses it. “The media made up this story. When the film was released, nobody was talking about this. It was only when German television began coming up with these GDR shows—these Ostalgie shows, as they were called—that it became an issue for the media.”
German TV’s recent interest in the GDR, the director argues, is superficial: “These shows were just showing fashion, brand names. They were not going deeper, like, What was the society like? What were the politics like? What about the sinister side of the GDR? They were just interested in feeding the people with stuff they used 13 years ago but haven’t seen in a long time.”
Having said this, Becker suddenly warms to the topic of lost stuff. “Just imagine that all the products you know and usually buy disappear over night, and they are replaced by completely new brands,” he says. “Everything is new. The newspaper, the television, the social system, the health system. Everything is replaced. And you don’t see the stuff anymore. Imagine somebody using Colgate for 20 years and then Colgate disappears. Then 10 years later, you suddenly taste Colgate again. With this taste, a lot of memories will come back….Smell and taste evoke more memories than pictures sometimes.
“Music also,” he adds. “If you suddenly hear ‘Nights in White Satin,’ you remember your first kiss.” He pauses, then grins. “Well, maybe that’s not the best music for your first kiss. But something like that. Every human being has a right to remember the past. You can’t take that way from people.”
If anyone knows how utterly East Germany has disappeared, it’s the makers of Good Bye, Lenin!. In the film, Brühl plays Alex, a young man whose mother had a heart attack just before the Berlin Wall fell. Cautioned that any shock could kill her, Alex and a few collaborators pretend that the GDR hasn’t changed. One dilemma is finding the East German consumer products that are already being supplanted by Western competitors.
“We faced similar problems to the main character,” Becker says. “Especially the pickles. It was the toughest part, because nobody keeps food for such a long time. The people from the East German film business were clever enough to keep stuff from that time. They have these big prop houses stocked with these things. But not food. So we had to look for the right bottles. We had to print the labels.”
Although much of the film takes place inside the family’s apartment, some exterior shots were necessary—and tricky. “At that time, it was 12 or 13 years after the Wall came down, and it looked so different,” Becker notes. “You have to close down the streets and bring your own cars. You have to remove lots of stuff, especially neon signs and big billboards. Lots of houses were already painted, so we had to put some patina on there.”
One location, for example, was chosen because it had a building that, according to Becker, “looked very socialistic. We came there to shoot, and they’d already built a big new house, which was right in the way.” Ultimately, much of East Berlin’s former drabness had to be restored digitally—one of many unexpected developments that drove the movie over budget.
“It doesn’t matter if you go back in time 13 years or 50 years,” says the filmmaker. “Only the producer understands [the problem] much better when you say, ‘We’re shooting a film that takes place at the time of the French Revolution.’ Then he knows you can’t have antennas and satellite dishes—it doesn’t make any sense. But there weren’t any satellite dishes in the GDR, either.”
“Graffitis were a big problem too,” interjects Brühl, who speaks mostly when Becker asks him to supply the English equivalent of a German word.
“They didn’t have graffitis in the East,” Becker explains, “because they didn’t have spray paint. You couldn’t buy that. The only graffitis were with chalk, and you can easily remove that.
“We had one location where we repainted everything. This was something of an invitation for these sprayers to show up the night before shooting and to spray again, because it was so clean. So we had to pay guards to watch it overnight.”
Some commentators have suggested that the movie’s painstaking evocation of the GDR is uncritical, a notion that causes the director to bristle. “That’s just stupid!” Becker roars. “After 10 minutes, the GDR is over. So we are already in a new society, or in a different GDR. There was a time between when the Wall came down and reunification. There was an interim period. It was still the GDR, but they had a different government. It was a democratic country then. So there was no chance to show something about the problems of the GDR. Only in the first 10 minutes.”
In creating a tiny GDR for his mother, Alex becomes the leader of his own totalitarian state. It is, Becker acknowledges, “a metaphorical parallel with what happened in the GDR. He starts off with good reasons: He doesn’t want his mother to die. The GDR started off, maybe, because they didn’t want everyone to be exploited by big industrialists. They wanted to create a society which is more human and just. They slowly perverted the whole system, because of course there were some of them in power who tried to take advantage of everything.”
Brühl, who grew up in Cologne, near Germany’s western border, argues that Alex “creates a fiction state that would have been great for our country. A mixture between both countries, which would have been a better solution than the one that was chosen. East Germany just disappeared within a very short time. There is nothing left from the old system. And there are a lot of things that were good about the system.
“I was very little, but I still remember when I was at school that my teachers told me that everything about the GDR was bad. It was terror regime, and it would be a great privilege for the people from the East that they have the benefits from the West. That they now have a life finally. The 40 years just didn’t mean anything. You lived in a lie, and you could just throw away these 40 years, and you had bad luck.” He laughs.
“The most important thing for me, when I prepared myself for this part, were the personal conversations I had with people from the East. I was so surprised that they told me they enjoyed many things in their past. I thought, But you couldn’t eat bananas. You had to wait 10 years for a car. How could it be joyful, how could it be nice, to live in this country? They told me, ‘No, it was good.’ Because more than in the West, you had your communities, you had your clubs. There were so many romantic memories.
“I don’t want to justify anything, or trivialize anything, about the GDR,” adds Becker. Then he asks, “If the system was so negative, how could it be possible that there are so many integral people coming from the East? Artists, normal people. How could that be possible? No one is asking this question. How could we admire Shostakovich and Prokofiev? They were living under the terror of Stalin. How could they write music? Either the system was not successful in changing everybody into a bad commie, or there is something wrong with the perception of this society.”
Becker doesn’t need Brühl’s help to find the English-language idiom he needs for his summation. “Just to put it in a single phrase that everybody can understand: There are as many assholes in the West as in the East.” —Mark Jenkins