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Consumer Reports

Movie revives good old days of a police state | (KRT) BERLIN — Normally, finding an empty pickle jar in a trash dumpster is not the kind of sight gag that sends a movie audience into gales of laughter.

But these days, a likeable film called "Goodbye, Lenin!" has become hugely popular across Germany by taking a look back on the good old days of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall. Most of the looking is through rose-colored and slightly fogged glasses, but the film's excess of sentimentality is rescued by an underlying truth: Thirteen years after reunification Germany remains one nation with two distinct stories.

The plot is simple: Christiane, played by Katrin Sass, a popular actress from the former East Germany, is a dedicated socialist and mother of two teens. In October 1989, a month before the wall falls, she suffers a stroke and falls into a coma. When she comes out of it eight months later, doctors warn that any excitement could be fatal.

But the world has turned upside down in those months, and the German Democratic Republic, the country Christiane has lived in all her life, no longer exists.

To spare her the shock, her children set about creating a kind of East German Potemkin village, complete with Young Pioneers singing patriotic hymns and familiar brands of pickles and laundry soap on the kitchen shelf.

"Goodbye, Lenin!" is one of the highest grossing German films ever and has already achieved the status of cult classic. Hip young Germans like to go to the movie decked out in the clunky clothing of the GDR.

"For West Germans, it's just a funny story, a part of our history that now we can laugh at. But for Ossies (Easterners) like myself, I think it has deeper meanings," said Alexander Mackat, 33, a Berlin advertising executive.

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"I saw things that I had forgotten about - the china we used to have in our home - and it was a reminder of how quickly our entire world disappeared," he said.

Mackat was one of the earliest to recognize and capitalize on what Germans call ostalgie, a nostalgic yearning for the artifacts of the disappeared GDR. He and a partner opened an ad agency that specialized in the eastern market.

Immediately after the wall came down, Mackat said, easterners eagerly gorged themselves on Western consumer products. But by the early 1990s, they discovered that drinking capitalist cola didn't make them any younger, sexier or more refreshed than communist cola. That triggered the first wave of ostalgie.

"When things are changing so rapidly, you want to hold onto something. You don't want to lose all the symbols of your biography, even if you weren't particularly attached to these things at the time," Mackat said.

Natural, perhaps, for Germans.

For Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and others who suffered under similarly misanthropic socialist regimes, there is little indication of any craving for the vanished days of secret police and one-size-fits-all women's underwear.

But reunification makes Germany a unique case.

"No one felt he was an Ossie before the wall came down," Mackat said. "The special feeling came only after the reunification. That's when it was understood how different we were."

In recent years, ostalgie seemed to be on the wane, but "Goodbye, Lenin!" has given it new life. So much so that Peter Massine, a Berlin theatrical promoter, is convinced that there's big money to be made by opening a GDR theme park.

He envisions something between a theater, a theme park and a museum.

"It will be like entering into the GDR," Massine said. Visitors will have their passports scrutinized by surly men in military uniforms. Some visitors will be approached by leather-jacketed "Stasi" operatives and asked to inform on others in their group.

Once inside, visitors will be able to eat East German food, shop for shoddy consumer goods and drive a Trabant through a Berlin street.

The project is still in the planning phase, said Massine, who is trying to line up investors.

While waiting for Massine's ersatz GDR to take shape, Ossies in need of a quick fix can visit Marianne Koos' modest shop in the Alexanderplatz underground train station.

Except for a brief interlude right after the fall of the wall, Koos has been selling the same ost products for 20 years.

It's not nostalgia that brings her a steady stream of customers, Koos insisted, but a preference for familiar products. Ossie women, in particular, have remained loyal to their old brands of cosmetic. They complain that the Western products, in addition to being more expensive, contain too much perfume and give them skin rashes.

Gudrum Sobczyk, a regular customer at the shop, dropped by recently to pick up a particular brand of no-nonsense chocolate cookies favored by her now-adult children. She dismissed Western cookies with a barnyard epithet.

This month, the public's appetite for ostalgie is being tested with the launch of "The GDR Show," a heavily promoted TV series that takes viewers on a sentimental stroll through an era that most people regard with a shudder.

But the upbeat producers contend that enough has been said about the downside of the East German police state, so why not recall the "fun" side_the pop songs, the old movies, the once-famous personalities and the cramped little apartments that everyone lived in.

Former Olympic figure skating queen Katarina Witt is the show's host.

For some, all of this ostalgie is becoming a bit much.

"The choice of (Witt) as hostess proves that this is not about the real GDR but an artificial product of the same name," complained the Munich daily Suddeutsche Zeitung. "The `Most Beautiful Face of Socialism' was one of the privileged few who traveled to the West, drove a Volkswagen Golf and had her own apartment."

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© 2003, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services