- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

Ask Wolfgang Becker how things are going in Germany, 15 years since reunification, and he’ll ask you to block out the rest of your afternoon.

“How much time do we have?” says the filmmaker whose latest movie, “Good Bye Lenin!” opens today in Washington.

Mr. Becker remembers the micro-details: The East Germans, for example, made lousy waiters immediately after the Berlin Wall came down.

“In the beginning, it was terrible to go to a restaurant,” he says. “They thought there was no need to serve people, no need to be friendly. It was just a job.”

The academic in Mr. Becker — he studied history at the Free University of Berlin — also has a grasp of the sociological picture. “Forty years of different systems change people,” he says. “People are more pessimistic in the East.”

The cultural chasm between eastern Germany, still in post-communist hangover, and western Germany, dynamic and cosmopolitan, is the stuff of black comedy in “Good Bye Lenin!” a big hit that’s still playing in German theaters more than a year after its release.

We’re discussing that chasm at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, where Mr. Becker and Daniel Bruhl, the star of the movie and a young sensation back home, talked to reporters in January shortly after a trip to the Golden Globe Awards in Los Angeles. (“Lenin” was nominated for best foreign-language film but didn’t win.)

The 59-year-old director, born in Hemer, Germany, near the Rhine River, speaks impeccable English and is fluent in Marxist theory as well. In a resonant baritone, he’ll talk about dialectical materialism with as much relish as when he talks about “Good Bye Lenin!”

And he’ll get affectionately cross with you if you equate socialism with Nazism.

“I hate when people say red is the same as brown,” he says, referring to the ideologies’ team colors. “By 1925, Hitler has written ‘Mein Kampf,’ and you could read everything about killing Jews and getting rid of Jews. That was eight years before they came into power.”

Mr. Bruhl, 25, also of West German extraction, is something of a Leonardo DiCaprio in his home country. When Mr. Becker points this out to me, the young star shakes his fists at the director, in a sign of humility.

That “Good Bye Lenin!” has been such a hit in Germany, Mr. Becker says, is due in no small part to Mr. Bruhl’s popularity among young German girls.

Mr. Bruhl remembers when the Berlin Wall fell but, he says, didn’t appreciate its import at the time. He was 11 years old. What he does remember, distinctly, was that East Germans were considered different, inferior in some way.

Co-writing a screenplay told from the perspective of East Germans, Mr. Becker began with an ironic idea — the reunification as catastrophe.

“That’s a good place to start for a satirical comedy,” he says.

In “Lenin,” a faithful East German woman (played by Katrin Sass) falls into a coma right before the German Democratic Republic — the Orwellian name for the Soviet satellite state — starts crumbling. She wakes up after it’s all over.

Told that too much excitement could bring on a relapse, her son (played by Mr. Bruhl) goes to comical lengths to create a Potemkin GDR in the confines of her room, even recruiting a friend to create a fake newsreel.

An additional wrinkle is that her husband has escaped to West Berlin; she stayed behind out of loyalty to the socialist state.

“It’s a story about a divided family, divided as Germany is divided,” Mr. Becker says.

Germany is one country today, but those divisions are still real. It’s a geographic fissure not unlike the one between North and South in Reconstruction-era America.

“There’s still a difference in the economic sense,” Mr. Becker says. “People who are skilled usually go to the western part of Germany because they find better jobs; they get paid more. Especially in the provincial areas of eastern Germany, they bleed out. Only the old people and young ones still in school stay there.”

Fear of “brain drain” was the primary reason the Berlin Wall was built in the first place. Communist Germans thought capitalism was a historical anachronism; it would collapse because of internal contradictions.

“They didn’t want to be just mean guys, to keep people from traveling,” Mr. Becker says. “It was the idea that, ‘We have to stay here; otherwise, we won’t achieve our aims.’ ”

West Germans were, however, free to pass between the two countries.

Today, they do so out of nostalgia. Eastern Germany has become a tourist attraction, Mr. Becker says.

“We call it ‘heritage tourism,’ because people who were born in this area or [whose] parents were born there, couldn’t go there for a long time. They go back to see what happened to their houses.”

East Germans themselves are nostalgic, too. Not for communism but for community, the feeling that they’ll be taken care of.

Material conditions for East Germans were miserable — it could take up to 10 years to get even a lousy car, for example — but under communism, they were at least spared the anxiety of, say, unemployment.

When the wall came down, consumer goods such as VCRs and designer furniture started pouring into the East. Mr. Becker, despite his leftward leanings, is fine with that. “They had a real lack of consumer goods,” he says.

But consumer goods weren’t the ultimate remedy. “Only after the GDR was gone, they found out that stereos and cars don’t make happiness,” Mr. Becker says. “They came back to the point that they are now missing something in their personal life.”

He adds, “What the people really want is to have some kind of solidarity in living together — it’s what you find in America in a Christian way.”

Mr. Becker certainly intends for “Good Bye Lenin!” to be taken lightly. At the same time, though, he wants to prod the audience into serious thoughts about family, neighborhood and community.

He’s clear about one thing, though: The movie isn’t an argument for a return to communism.

“Everybody is happy that the GDR is gone,” he says. “No one wants it back.”

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