Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Motherhood, Melodrama, and Masculinity in Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye Lenin!

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Motherhood, Melodrama, and Masculinity in Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye Lenin!

Article excerpt

In February of 2003, over twelve years after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic and its ensuing absorption into the Federal Republic of Germany, Wolfgang Becker's film Goodbye Lenin, which narrates the ascension to manhood of Alexander Kerner in East Berlin during the turbulent period before and after the opening of the Wall, met with popular and critical acclaim in both East and West (Finger, Festenberg). Whereas earlier cinematic attempts to write GDR history as family narrative had elicited mixed reactions, for example Margarethe von Trotta's 1994 melodrama Das Verxprechen, or had encountered popular enthusiasm largely on one side of the former inner-German border, as did Leander Hausmann's 1999 comedy Sonnenallee (Peitz), Good Bye Lento successfully negotiated both the former East-West border and the boundary between melodrama and comedy. Its strategy for doing so was the return to quite familiar cinematic terrain: a mother-son family romance in which the son overcomes the mother by creating a space for identification with her through memory. Good Bye Lenin intervenes in the question of how to treat the GDR past by framing the topic as family drama; yet unlike Margarethe von Trotta's Das Versprechen, it focuses not on a protagonist whose masculine ambitions (as lover, father, and scientist) are crushed by the GDR, but on a young male whose successful ascension to manhood coincides with his adaptation to the new capitalist system.

Alex's adaptation to capitalism requires him to come to terms with his childhood socialist imaginary, which he does by projecting it onto his mother in such a way that it can be both remembered and disavowed. This point is stated most clearly in the closing voiceover in which he describes the GDR as a land that in his memory will always be linked to his mother. Viewed entirely through the eyes of her son, Christiane Kerner becomes an overdetermined symbol for an idyllic GDR childhood in which Alex's ego is constituted through his mother's love and approval. The end of the GDR corresponds with a crisis in the mother-son idyll, requiring a psychic adjustment on the part of the son, resolved through a redrawing of public and private borders: the East German mother, who before the fall of the Berlin Wall had served as a critical mediator between public ideology and private family life, comes to occupy a strictly private space of memory that, while worthy of preservation, has become politically and economically without use, like the GDR money that Frau Kerner has kept hidden in the kitchen cabinet.

To understand the film's treatment of the mother-son relationship it is necessary to examine its negotiation of melodramatic conventions within the culturally-specific discursive field surrounding German unification and the East German past. In particular, during times of rapid social change, melodrama has served to represent conflicts between the demands of the socioeconomic system on the individual and the desire for continuity with one' s past, origins, or roots (Gledhill). It is thus not surprising to find in Good Bye Lenin! that a mother-son relationship serves to represent the conflicting desires surrounding German reunification: the longing for a return to GDR childhood is juxtaposed with the desire to master the new territory of West German capitalism. While this type of melodrama can serve as a site for representing conflicts often ignored by political discourse, feminist film critics have argued that it can also reinforce gendered narratives of development that support the public/private (masculine/feminine) dichotomy constituted in nineteenth-century literary and theatrical genres in which cinematic melodrama has its roots (Kaplan, "Mothering"). Feminist film critics have also noted the overvalued yet critically ambiguous role of the mother-son relationship in the history of cinematic melodrama: although they have often been portrayed more positively than mother-daughter relationships, this has come at the expense of the mother, who functions largely as vehicle and/or obstacle to the desire of the male child (Kaplan, "Mothering" 117). …

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