Published February 22, 2015
The current spate of movies set in East Germany started as far back as 2003 with the comedy Good Bye, Lenin!, actually by now as far from us in time as it is from the end of the DDR. While entertaining and intelligent in its way, some were horrified at the rise of “Ostalgie,” the feeling that things had somehow been better, or at the very least harmless, in the old east.
The response was the mighty Das Leben Der Anderen from 2006, a deserved foreign language Oscar winner which showed that while the DDR might indeed have been daft, it was anything but harmless, with the machinations of a surveillance state being used for private ends by a spurned lover (insert your Snowden-related fears here). Ostalgia has continued apace in Berlin with the increase of tourism, preservation of what’s left of the wall, theme parties and restaurants that serve genuine, flavour-free Ossie food. And most Cold War set German films have fallen into one of these two categories, all suffering from comparison with the big two.
Ossie dreams come true
That is, until now.
Westen offers a genuinely new take on the subject, beginning where most films of this type end, with the escape to the West. It toys mercilessly with audience expectations; of course one expects the border guards to stop the mother and son as they try to exit with fake passports, because that is what always happens, until they finally get across in the end. Instead, they are allowed through. But their problems are just beginning.
Much like Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia starts with deconstructing the fairy tale wedding that most movies close with, we here get to see what happens when Ossie dreams come true. Set in 1977 (Bowie and Iggy, sadly, cannot be seen jogging in the background), West-Berlin is a city not only in the throes of the Cold War, but still very much still occupied by the Allies in the wake of World War II.
Refugees of a different type
In between being examined for lice and other supposed eastern maladies, and continually grilled by American agents over why she has chosen to cross over, she offers that she was tired of the constant suspicion and humiliation of life in the east. You see what they are getting at here, and that the defenders of freedom resort to much the same tactics as the other side makes the film both historically believable and timely.
However, this is not just a reference to the NSA. Refugees are still a major issue today, and it is helpful to be reminded that a generation ago, these weren’t necessarily Africans but Germans who were making the perilous passage to a new life, and right in the heart of Europe at that. And those that offered a helping hand always come out better in the rear view mirror.
If you see one film this weekend…
Of course, her boy is picked on at school as those who are different must be. And the beautiful miss Senff must choose between prospective lovers, an American agent, another East German who much like her son is picked on, he on suspicion of being a snitch. Finally, there is her dead husband, who may still be alive and may or may not be an agent for one side or the other.
Paranoia is, of course, a feature of all Cold War films, but Westen’s winning gambit is transporting this over the wall and into West Germany. Director Christian Shwochow last impressed with Die Unsichtbare and here outdoes himself.
As the German Film Days in Bíó Paradís enter their final weekend, this is the one must-see film.