24 May 2004 | jrichardstevens
The charming social construction of history
I found this movie to be a charming film and very engaging on both a personal and a social level. The story is drawn from the lives of an East Berlin family struggling to cope with the changing world as their way of life is challenged. The father, having reportedly left the family for the West years before, is not present and the mother replaces her spousal needs with the love of her country and its way of life.
The premise of the film centers on the frail mother, who falls into a coma mere weeks before the fall of the Berlin wall. Eight months later, she regains consciousness, and her children are told not to excite her, lest she have another episode.
Bound by their love of their mother, the son and daughter seek to shield her from the changes in her culture. In their apartment, they recreate the conditions of the world she remembers, right down to the labels on the food they serve her. As the mother comes into contact with the inevitable disparities between her new world and the one she remembers, the son compounds the deception, eventually creating false newscasts to explain the phenomena she witnesses in a manner more consistent with her core assumptions of life.
The film is touching, tender, funny and dramatic. However, the elements that really drew me in were the historical construction and the plot device of deception.
The historical construction was the way in which the son, through his efforts to explain the increasingly Westernized elements of German society his mother observes, recreates East Germany as the country he could have faith in. As he recreates history to incorporate current events, he softens the harshness of the party rhetoric, reforming the socialistic ideal closer to the compassion for the masses and the acceptance of the 'enemy' capitalists. The film makes ample use of actual news footage in his narrative, footage that adds sharp contrast to Alex's version.
This contrast is a striking reminder about how much of our social conscience is constructed through the lenses we choose to observe reality and recall history. Alex had quickly come to give up his socialist devotion (though the film does make it clear form the beginning that the adult Alex was already disenchanted with it). But as Alex fabricates news reports and artifacts for the illusion he's providing his mother, he actually appears to be inventing a system of socialism that he can feel proud of. It's almost as if in trying to console his mother, he connects to her by reinterpreting her world into something he can interface with, building common ground.
How much of our own social history is constructed in this manner? We champion our own system of free market democracy as the 'city on the hill' for other nations. We raise up the virtues of our freedom and individuality (and there are indisputably many virtues), while ignoring some of the more sorted historical results it has yielded. We choose which portions of our history we celebrate, and which portions we condemn to academic obscurity.
Americans use history to construct our national mythology. Like Homer and Virgil before us, we compose idealized stories of virtue and create narratives that resound with the language of legendary epics. And because of this mythology building exercise, we often fail to see our own cultural reality for the flawed imperfect collection of group effort that it is. That's why we feel so betrayed when our leaders make simple human mistakes or we see representatives of our culture participating in a manner that runs counter to our values.
No where is this phenomenon so pronounced as when it comes to our national leaders. We look back on our founding fathers and through our myth building, elevate them to superhuman stature. Our high school students may not remember what wars Washington fought in or what political initiatives he took but they remember that he cut down a (fictional) cherry tree and refused to lie about it.
We remember the elegant words that our predecessors crafted without remembering the pain and suffering their efforts exacted from other people. We remember that Thomas Jefferson advocated 'Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political
' while conveniently forgetting that he was ambivalent at best to the degree that freedom extended to those in a state of slavery. We forget that founding father quarreled, that at times they misrepresented each other's interest to foreign leaders and that on occasion may have even tried to kill one another.
The founding fathers we remembered were well educated, civil and wise.
Against this tapestry of myth we watch contemporary politics play out, trying desperately to spin events into frameworks that reinforce our desires for justice and virtue.
We are all Alex, trying to reconstruct a new view of history that makes us more proud of where we come from. We invent and reinvent history to suit our needs and like Alex, do so in the name of providing a safe environment (or better way of life) for others.