Overview: In October of 1989 in East Berlin, a matriarch and socialist-party loyalist has a heart attack and falls into a coma. One month later, the Berlin Wall falls, and she sleeps as the nation she knew and loved changes completely. When she unexpectedly wakes up in 1990, her devoted, beloved son Alex (Daniel Brühl) is determined to recreate communist East Berlin for his mother, for fear that the shock of finding out the truth would kill her. Germany, 2003. 121 minutes. X-Filme Creative Pool/Sony Pictures Classics.
History Lesson: First and foremost, I firmly believe that this movie transcends personal and cultural contexts, which is to say that I think it is a film that anyone can enjoy. I have a personal bias toward not only German film but specifically toward those that deal with Berlin’s tumultuous history of division and reunification. The way director Wolfgang Becker was able to recreate the East Berlin of this era — the drab colors punctuated by red, the pervasive presence of the Trabant (the iconic East German car), the squareness and aesthetic solidarity of the flats and other buildings — is a marvel. Having first viewed the film in Berlin and having more recently re-watched the film with someone who isn’t a history buff and who has no such personal attachment to Berlin or to its history, I can confidently say based on that person’s reaction that it is a universally effective and satisfying viewing experience. It is profoundly emotional, thoughtful, and funny. Particularly successful is the use of home video clips and Alex’s voiceover throughout, situating his family’s saga within a historical and cultural context of a society, a city, and an entire country in flux.
“Ostalgia:” What this film did for me and for my companion alike is not only ground a heartfelt and funny story in a true historical event. And, likewise, it did not just use a familial tale filled with both heartache and humor to convey an important history lesson. It also highlights a complexity within this history that otherwise may have gone unnoticed, buried in the rubble of the fallen wall, obscured by the jubilant celebrations of those reunited Berliners. This facet of this history that I’m referring to is often referred to as “Ostalgia:” a play on the word ‘nostalgia’ using part of the German word for ‘east’ (Osten), Ostalgia captures the very idea that not all East Germans were as instantly jubilant about losing their orderly way of life. Many felt capitalism provided an overwhelming abundance of choices, and yet not enough jobs despite its outward ideology of freedom and forward progression. The film shows us those who lost their jobs in the upheaval, and we find that Alex’s mother is not the only one to have loved her East German way of life. Soon, it is not such a favor for these individuals to help Alex keep up the charade, because everyone genuinely starts to enjoy reliving the recent past. Ultimately, the subject of reunification and freedom is a complicated, nuanced thing for these characters; we feel their pain and uncertainty mixed with humor and hope.
How Things Should Have Been: Alex, getting in way over his head with the ruse, films fake news segments with his friend and new coworker Denis, a would-be filmmaker. The news stories are brilliant, creative improvisations (in reaction to things that went awry, such as when Alex’s mother sees a Coca-Cola banner unravel just outside her window, a moment whose slow reveal exhibits perfect comedic pacing). These news stories are also outlandish fantasies that could never have been fact in the actual 40-year regime. When Alex puts together one last tape, the contents of which I will not spoil, he says in voiceover that he wants to give East Germany the send off it deserved. Through the elaborate world of lies that he creates out of love for his mother, he had also created East German society as he wished it could have been. It’s an important, empowering sentiment, especially as the film draws nearer to the event of Germany’s official political reunification.
Humor, History, Charm: I think this film strikes such a wonderful tonal balance between comedy, history, and familial drama. It always feels sincere, genuine, and intimate, so the history lessons don’t feel preachy, the drama does not feel melodramatic, and the comedy is grounded somehow in all of the above. I wouldn’t believe it if you were to tell me that you did not laugh and/or get chills (for me, it was an odd but thrilling sensation to have experienced both responses more or less at once) at the shot of a Lenin statue being carried by helicopter, floating through the air over Berlin’s city streets. I also wouldn’t believe you if you told me that you did not learn something from this film, if it did not make you smile, make you think, and make you feel. It’s just that good.