In May 2006, just a few months before the World Cup in Berlin, I asked Ingo Schulze a question after his book reading (from his Neue Leben, 2005) in Kreutzberg: “What do you think of the “new” Germany?” not even suspecting that we were speaking different discourses.
While I expected an observation on the current, post-reunification reality (having been researching the present state of cultural self-understand and branding of a new, post-reunification Berlin), the author, who has been writing of cultural and social peculiarities since reunification, proved to be still very much “ein Ost-Mensch” (easterner) at heart, because he understood my question to be about the former GDR newspaper “Neues Deutschland” (New Germany) – the official party newspaper of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), whose readership diminished drastically after reunification.
What I came away with from that book reading, and in my research in 2006, was that Berlin was still very much divided in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants (especially everyone born before 1989), and was merely patched together with cutting-edge corporate marketing precision for the skimming glance of the tourist and world media.
Several years later, in Andreas Dresen’s Whisky mit Wodka (2009), Corinna Harfouch’s character refers to her colleague, played by Markus Hering, as “Sie sind ja, wie man früher sagte, aus dem Osten” (You are, as one used to say in the old days, from the east). This is a very significant and deliberate international attempt (the film premiered in Canada at the Montreal Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in October 2009, after its release in Germany in September 2009) to propel the East-West discourse into the past.
Andreas Dresen, the director, comes from what in the old days used to be called the former east (like Schulze). His films often reflect on the consequences of reunification. In his latest film, a homage to the chaos of film-making à la François Truffaut’s La nuit américaine (1973, Day for Night), a conflict between an aging, alcoholic celebrity and his lesser-known, theatrically-gifted understudy is explored in all its comic and dramatic depth. Yet, when our attention is drawn to the fact that the increasingly opportunistic understudy is from what used to be referred to as the east, the characters gain an increasingly political and social dimension, considering that in the end, the former “Ost-Mensch,” after attempting to secure the film-role for himself by sabotaging his western mirror-image’s sobriety, is sent back to the theater with a smaller pay-check than expected, but not without a friendly embrace from his western counterpart.
The bond between the whisky-drinking easterner, and the vodka-drinking westerner occurs despite personal, economic, or creative differences. Dresen seems to be saying that when you spend enough time together in close proximity, sooner or later you end up drinking together and contemplating life and art in a way that will not have to exclude anyone. Whether or not this is a commentary on contemporary German society is left up to individual interpretation.