pragueBlog

2003-11-18  

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT: For my own observance of the 14th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, I went to the see the movie Goodbye Lenin, which opened yesterday. Wrong country, I know, but it concerns the same time in history.

The film is seriously undermined by being at least half an hour too long. Some of the most touching scenes are ruined by a microphone bobbing in and out of the top of the frame like a cork floating on top of a pond. But this is a nice, sweet story with a premise whose time has come: a peculiar nostalgia for pre-1989 life behind the iron curtain.

The main character's mother lies in a coma during the crucial months encompassing the fall of the wall and the opening up of east Germany to the west. When she wakes up, the doctor tells the son that her heart won't stand another shock. So he and his sister are forced to keep the new post-1989 world hidden from their mother.

Her bedroom is returned to its previous state. Everyone has to wear their old clothes in her presence. Searching for the old regime brands that his convalescent mother loves takes up more and more of the son's time, and he's increasingly subverted in his scheme by forces beyond his control. Mother sees a huge Coca Cola banner unfurled on the building across the way; the neighbor upstairs listens to west German TV with the volume turned up; their housing development is invaded by westies. These are all explained away in clever and quite funny ways, and the depiction of pre-1989 life is well done.

This movie was a hit in Germany where "ostalgie" has been spreading and is now a market. But the film's message is not anti-capitalist. This is not nostalgia for the "good old days". It's something else. I have met many Czechs who talk of a strange fondness for certain (very select) memories of those times - unless they were stepped on by the regime, of course. It has to be said that for some there was a simplicity to life that rose from knowing that personal responsibility was very narrowly defined - and limited. In this discussion, I don't pass judgment. This is really one of those cases where you can't understand what totalitarianism meant unless you lived your life here, experiencing it day to day.

I will say I do hate it (and agree here with Cerny) when westerners waltz in and presume to regret the passing of the old Prague and the "invasion" of western goods, shops and tastes - the whole idiotic golden arches and globalization meme. (These discussions often occur in McDonald's, I just feel certain). Shut up, idiots. And please don't write any more letters to the fricking Prague Post.

But I will admit I was fascinated by the scenes showing east Berlin's pre-1989 self. I arrived in Prague between the first and second anniversaries of the Velvet Revolution. Scenes in the film showing east Berlin took me back to those days. In 1991 Prague had changed physically very little. The shops were still full of the same products everyone knew - there was no Czech unification with a prosperous western cousin as in the case of Germany. The little shop in the suburban neighborhood where I stayed sported shelves usually about three-quarters full, primarily consisting of pickled matter in cans and jars. The tough old birds who ran the place gave me hell for the first few weeks. They eventually warmed up somewhat when they realized they couldn't scare me away.

I'll never feel brand nostalgia for the old Czechslovakia. I don't remember the names of all those long-gone sweet fizzy drinks with their funny bottles and strange labels. And, I do apologize, but they should have left Kofola buried right where it was.

Can a person who grew up here legitimately miss something intangible about a previous era when people lacked basic freedoms? I don't know. But I think I can understand it: with the coming of freedom and capitalism comes a worldliness and experience that means a corresponding loss of innocence. Parents know the feeling of one day looking at their child and realizing that the innocent little boy and girl they knew will never return. I think mourning that a little, while not actually regretting its passing, is probably just human.

Steve | 19:55 |
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