Cultural Identity: Narrative Essay

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'As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay'. These famous words from Günter Schabowski ended the many years of separation between East and West Germany on 9 November 1989. In the following months, more and more people moved from East Berlin to the West and vice versa. Thus, step by step, the products of the West were also adopted in the East, while large parts of the culture of the GDR, the German Democratic Republic, disappeared. Some of the former GDR inhabitants were not able to adapt as fast as the change took place in the East and mourned for the past system in which they lived for so many years and a nostalgia for the German Democratic Republic and a search for a new identity developed.

The German tragicomedy film 'Good Bye, Lenin!' by Wolfgang Becker from 2003 takes up this issue. Due to a heart attack, the mother of the main character, Alex, is in a coma while the fall of the Berlin Wall takes place. Eight months later, she wakes up from the coma, and to save her from another heart attack, Alex decides not to tell her about the political changes that have taken place and creates an illusion of the GDR in their flat in east Berlin instead. Wolfgang Becker's film shows how people cannot completely abandon the GDR they lived in and their illusions about it, while it also focuses on these memories. Thus, questioning them and the changing cultural identity.

At the beginning of the film, the German Democratic Republic is portrayed as a place worth living where people can enjoy themselves. Shot in the film format Super 8, it shows the main character's Alex happy childhood and how they are spending time with his family at their garden property outside the city and on a trip to a lake. The characters laugh and convey something playfully and positively to the viewer. As these scenes are shot as Super 8 footage and edited to have an even older look, they appear to the viewer as a throwback to a long-forgotten time and convey a feeling of nostalgia. This nostalgia and positive illusion, however, is quickly shifted into the negative by Wolfgang Becker, when he also points out the bad side of the German Democratic Republic during the scene of the night demonstration and confrontation with the police.

It starts with a high-angle establishing shot. With this high-angle shot, the characters within the shot are dwarfed. It illustrates that they seem insignificant and underlines their vulnerability (Lewis, 2013:89). In this case, the vulnerability of the demonstrators against the police. However, the beginning of the situation is downplayed for the viewer, not just to the extent that the objective establishing shot gives a godlike perspective and takes the viewer further away from the action, but also due to the added voice-over of the protagonist, who assesses the event ironically and describes the demonstration for freedom as an evening walk to advocate for strolling without boundaries.

The distance to the demonstrators slowly gets reduced until the audience is given the feeling of being in the middle of the action, walking with them. Then the police attack. From this moment on, the shots from multiple camera positions got pieced together to create a fast pace, with the individual shots never longer than 3 seconds, often shorter. The filmmaker reflects on this sudden realization of the GDR's violence through the eyes of Christiane, Alex's mother. When she arrives at the scene, several shots and reverse shots between Christiane and the police fighting the demonstrators show how Christiane cannot believe what is happening and how her positive view of her beloved German Democratic Republic gets shaken.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the start of the fast change of East Berlin's cultural identity and the gradual takeover of the West over the East was depicted in how the speed of the image is accelerated at several points in the film. Indicating that everything happens a little faster in the West than in the relatively serene East. The first time this editing technique is used is when Alex rides his scooter into the West for the first time. That the increased speed of the West has also arrived in the East is made clear when Alex and Denis, the protagonist's friend, drive their company car. The image acceleration of the car, manipulated by editing, and the fast cuts illustrate the new and faster sense of time.

When Alex decides to recreate the German Democratic Republic in his mother's bedroom, and he and Denis redecorate the room to its old style, the increased fast motion and the faster-edited composition of 'The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71A, Russian Dance' by Leopold Stokowski, lets the viewer experience the fast speed of the West rather comically. This image acceleration comes to an end, and the mother's room seems separated from the influences happening in the world outside the flat. The viewer feels that the characters try to keep one part of their cultural identity alive.

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That it is one challenge to redecorate a room to its previous style, but another to keep the Western influence and the fast-changing culture out of the mother's life. This is shown when Alex tries to find Spreewaldgurken, the typical and famous East German gherkins, in the grocery store. He wanders in disbelief through the store. The shelves in the store are empty, and just the employees are cleaning the remaining parts. The whole scene appears darker, with the lighting just coming from outside through the window which creates a high contrast between the brighter and darker areas as well. The store seems cold and distant, which is enhanced by the color scheme of the white shelves and the blue clothes all the characters in the scene are wearing.

When Alex tries to buy Eastern products in another supermarket shortly afterward, the first point that stands out is the big contrast with the grocery shop shown before.

The scene is presented in high-key lighting, which means the use of fill and backlight to create a low contrast between darker and brighter areas (Bordwell, and Thompson, 2016:129). Everything in the supermarket is colorful, and the shelves have more than enough groceries. However, to Alex's astonishment, there are only Western products, while the old familiar products from the East have entirely disappeared. Even when Alex picks up a jar of gherkins that seem to be from the East, as the label states, 'Moscow gherkins', the employee informs him that they are actually from the Netherlands. The filmmaker leaves the impression that the West is superior to the East. The culture of the German Democratic Republic is worth nothing, and everything is easily changeable.

At Christiane's birthday party, the connection and slow takeover of the East by the West becomes once more notable again, even when the family tries to maintain, it does not. The mise-en-scène in this scene provides meaning for the viewer and tells more about the character's current state of mind and the ongoing story (Edgar, Marland, and Rawle, 2010:132). In Christiane's tiny bedroom, her family and acquaintances gather together. Everybody except the mother wears the typical GDR-style clothes over their newly adapted modern clothes. Even the make-up of the characters fit into the style of the GDR. They try to maintain the illusion for the mother that the GDR is still part of this world. For Lara, Alex's girlfriend, this play is more disconcerting than for the others. She keeps tugging at her clothes. It shows the viewer that she feels uncomfortable in them and has already adopted the new way of life. When Alex starts his speech for his mother, an unmissable Coca-Cola advertisement is placed on the wall of the opposite building. The size of it is a sign of the power of Western capitalism since Coca-Cola was a product of the West at that time and not available in the East. The brand's color red is, in this case, used ironically, and the brand itself symbol for the characters one more piece of the West's rapid takeover after the fall of the Wall. Therefore, the characters are all shocked. Not just because of this realization, but also because they probably cannot hide the downfall of the German Democratic Republic from Christiane any longer. It leaves the viewer wondering how Alex will explain this situation to his mother. The closing of the curtains seems to separate the room from the everchanging outside and the truth for Christiane but also for the audience.

Christiane, however, is soon confronted with questioning her known reality, what she knows and remembers about the German Democratic Republic, and what her son makes her believe. While Alex is asleep, the mother does not want to lay in her bed anymore and takes her first steps into the outside world. This scene's editing highlights Christiane's disorientation when she is confronted with the new situation. The scene starts with an establishing shot, showing new neighbors moving in. Christiane leaves the house slowly, and she and the audience discover one by one the changes that have happened, as the film intercuts between Christiane and an advertising pillar, promoting products from the West or a car sale for Western cars. The whole scene has a slow pace. Christiane needs time to process what she sees. Her confusion becomes clearly visible when the huge statue of Lenin is removed by a helicopter. A sign that the GDR has ended and a new era has begun. As the statue flies past her and reaches its hand towards her, as it seems for a last goodbye, the image acceleration gets slowed down. This moment is intensified for the viewer as all the everyday noises that are diegetic, except for the helicopter's rotor blades, almost fade out, and the non-diegetic music composition reaches its climax when the statue flies past Christiane. Meanwhile, Alex wakes up and is looking for his mother. Through cross-cutting, a way to cut back and forth between parallel actions, the audience knows that these two actions happen parallel (Lewis, 2013:144). As Alex is shown in a hurry, with fast-paced cuts, it is emphasized that he tries to find his mother as soon as possible, so his construct of lies and illusions does not get discovered by her.

Throughout the narrative, Alex's quest to hide the truth of the fall of the Berlin Wall from his mother was not only to prevent her from another heart attack but also to preserve the memories and wishes of what the culture of the German Democratic Republic could have been for him. Something he even admits at the end of the movie, when he describes his illusions of the GDR as 'a country that never existed in reality.' In the film, the filmmaker shows the viewer not only how difficult it is to say goodbye to something that has been part of one's life for so long, but also that this behavior and the preservation of memories of the past are understandable.

In the end, the audience discovers that Lara told Christiane the truth about the reunification of Germany. Contrary to Alex's fears, she takes this news by surprise yet serene. Out of love for her son, she tells him nothing and plays along when Alex fakes his last news broadcast for her. Through Christiane, the viewer learns that one can also accept another culture, even if it is unfamiliar.

Wolfgang Becker's film techniques and narrative give the viewer also a nostalgic feeling for the GDR. Every time the characters discover something that has been changed in their culture, the viewer also gets a feeling of sentiment. The filmmaker clearly shows the weaknesses this former country had, but also the positive sides and how it appears to the citizens that the West was overrunning them with the new, unfamiliar culture and the sudden changes they had been foreclosed on for so many years.

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