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We'll always have East Berlin

Germany's strange new nostalgia for life behind the Wall

Germany's strange new nostalgia for life behind the Wall BY Y. EUNY HONG

BERLIN-Marianne Koos has owned a convenience shop in the Alexanderplatz subway station ever since 1984, when her home and business lay east of the Berlin Wall. Her wares have scarcely changed since thenshe continues to sell Communist-era shampoos, household cleaners, and Ersatzkaffee (imitation coffee made of malted grains and charred vegetables). These aren't vintage goods, however; the companies that manufactured these products shut down after the fall of the Wall in 1989 but soon resumed production due to popular demand.

The popularity of these items is most curious, considering the fact that East Germans once tried desperately to buy Western products on the black market. But, says proprietor Koos, it wasn't long after Germany's reunification in 1990 that former East Germans realized they were missing something.

``East German women don't like Western European cosmetics because they're overly perfumed,'' she explains. As for the fake coffee, the older generation still enjoys the flavor and just can't get used to the taste of real coffee beans.

Welcome to the new ``Ostalgie,'' as Germans have dubbed nostalgia for all things relating to the formerly Communist east, or Ost. This summer, Ostalgie went into high gear with the premiere of three new TV programs, including ``The GDR Show,'' hosted by the Olympic figure-skating gold medalist and former East German poster girl Katarina Witt. But the seeds of Ostalgie were planted last year with the release of German director Wolfgang Becker's wildly successful ``Goodbye, Lenin!'' The film follows a young man who relabels food jars and redecorates his Ikea-furnished apartment with tacky East German furniture to conceal the news of communism's demise from his mother, who has just awoken from a coma.

In the premiere episode of ``The GDR Show,'' which was broadcast on Wednesday, a beaming Katarina Witt appeared onstage in a creepy grown-up imitation of her childhood East German school uniform. The show follows a Regis and Kathy Lee format, with Witt showing her affable male cohost how to make a popular East German cocktail, the ``Haps Flip.'' (Mix milk, red wine, beer, sugar, black pepper, and a raw egg.) Witt has described her show as a ``winking look at the GDR, to show that it wasn't all bad.'' Her cockeyed attitude may explain why she was curiously absent in the one segment that seems out of placean interview with a woman who spent ages 14 to 25 in an East German prison camp for putting lipstick on a portrait of Stalin.

``The Ostalgie Show'' is largely in the same vein, including among its guests nearly every prominent figure skater of the former GDR, except for Witt, who was obviously spoken for.

Meanwhile, ``The Ultimate Ostshow,'' which has captured 25 percent of the German audience in the coveted 14-to-49 age bracket since it appeared last month, takes a more purely tongue-in-cheek tone. The talk/variety show allows celebrities and politicians of the former East Germany to wax nostalgic about such things as Communist-issue toilet paper, which was made from old newspapers, with the headlines still legible. Guests demonstrate how they used to tie on their red neckerchiefs for the Communist Youth League. An automotive engineer for the Trabant, the notoriously junky East German automobile, explains that while the car wouldn't always start, it was nevertheless ``sturdily made.''

. . .

Not everyone finds Ostalgie amusing. The Berlin-based nonprofit Help, which aids victims of violence in Europe, published a letter of protest to ``The GDR Show'''s production company, stating, ``We ask that this show, which minimizes and palliates the [horrors of the] GDR dictatorship, be neither produced nor broadcast.'' The premier of Germany's Thringen province, Dieter Althaus, was quoted as saying, ``These realities deserve no nostalgia.''

Germans certainly aren't so jocular about other dark chapters in their history. A 1999 retrospective on Nazi-era art, held in Weimar, was a critical and commercial disaster. The lyrics, ``Don't be stupid, be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi Party,'' from Mel Brooks's ``The Producers,'' don't get many laughs here. It is illegal in Germany to peddle bedtime propaganda books for good Aryan children and other Nazi memorabilia. (I have, however, seen these items for sale in the former Soviet Union.)

Today, it is well known that the Berlin Wall fell because of a bureaucrat's slip of the tongue. On Nov. 9, 1989, East German government spokesman Gnter Schabowski held a press conference about East Germany's plan to permit citizens to cross the border for limited trips abroad. When a journalist asked when this plan would be implemented, a flustered Schabowski replied, ``Immediately.'' Right away, thousands of East Germans fled westward, taking bits of the Wall with them. (In ``Goodbye, Lenin!'', which opens later this year in the United States, the son breaks the news of reunification to his mother by means of a doctored news broadcast showing the fall of the Berlin Wallwith hordes of West German refugees eagerly heading east to the Communist land of milk and honey.)

German reunification, in other words, has always had a tinge of surrealism. Perhaps it was only a matter of time, then, before an equally surreal Ostalgie craze would emerge, even if it's just in the form of nostalgia TV shows and foul-smelling communist-issue aftershave.

Y. Euny Hong is a writer based in Berlin. She writes frequently on European cultural issues.

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