Home Is A Foreign Country: East German Alterity in Post-1990 Film

    • Cover Conference Prague
    • Presentation speakers
      • Evelyn Preuss, Yale University, USA


    As film, perhaps more than any other mass medium, influences global identity projections, its rendering of Eastern European alterity assumes a critically pertinent politicality. Short-circuiting or even substituting historiography, it shapes the imagination and conception of the possible and, with that, also concrete solutions for pressing global problems. In sum, it prefigures the future. The Eastern European alterity at issue is thereby doubly informed. On the one hand, it constructs an Orientalist Other within the bounds of the continent. Reiterating ideologies of earlier colonial aspirations, which Larry Wolff has traced to the 18th century in his seminal Inventing Eastern Europe, the West legitimizes its privileged access by alleging the East’s insufficiency and consequent need of tutelage. After all, the far side of the former Iron Curtain still fulfills the classic criteria of the colonial catalogue: exploitable resources in terms of labor and raw material extraction, lower environmental standards, as well as markets for Western surplus, both in terms of investment, i.e., excess money, and consumption, i.e., the distribution of Western-branded products. On the other hand, Eastern European difference derives from the experience of socio-economic systems that in many respects presented an alternative to Western modes of incentivizing social organization, political decision-making and the corollary ethics. Rampant post-1990 neoliberalism and the rapid deterioration of the social fabric, especially with regard to employment, women’s emancipation and communal philosophies have resulted in what Kristen Ghodsee has termed “Red Hangover,” presenting a virulent mix of nostalgia, an staunch insistence on alterity in historical perspective and social vision as well as a retrenchment of distinctive cultural values and identities. In cinema as an investment-intensive mass medium that negotiates business considerations, political demands and audience expectations, East Germany remains an Other. Given that West Germans govern funding institutions for film projects as well as the distribution systems on which a film’s commercial and critical success ultimately hinges; that private investors are interested in films selling internationally, especially in markets that guarantee a high return and are thus inclined to use the formulas of global commercial cinema, which do not necessarily lend themselves to communicate alternative perspectives or to invite reflection; and that even domestically, the West German market, according to basic demographics, is at least four times larger than the East German market, producing an imbalance to cater to Western self-affirmation rather than challenge, the odds are stacked against films that could convey an Eastern perspective. Accordingly, most of post-1990 German film dwells on 1989 as a caesura that serves Western self-legitimation, but eclipses the more frequent and more existential upheavals of the 1990s, which contest any notion that Western economic and political system solves the basic problems of democratic representation and the decline in material conditions, which had propelled the revolutions of 1989 in the first place. Similarly, post-1990 film highlights pre-1989 East German surveillance and state violence as a barbarian political Other, but eclipses their Western equivalent, especially as it comes to bear post-1990 with the involvement of Western secret services in right extremist—including terrorist—groups. And finally, post-1990 film’s foregrounding of commodity culture, whereby the Eastern versions figure as inferior counterparts to Western-style products (many of which were, ironically, produced in the East), completely sideline aspects of Eastern society that rendered the image and consumption economies of the West obsolete, that presented informally negotiated structures beyond hierarchized market segmentations and that eschewed money-defined economies of exchange. My paper contends that while the Orientalist Other overshadows the Eastern European alterity based on a non-capitalist experience, it is ultimately the latter which makes the East an increasingly popular subject. After all, the crisis of the neoliberalist project does not only affect the East: it is a global phenomenon that already commands the attention of a global audience and will—ultimately, eventually—demand a global perspective.