‘Legal Tender’: The Narrative of Love in East German Popular Culture

Angela Merkel recently confessed to a nostalgic fondness for East German products and a habit of stockpiling certain foodstuffs. While this served as a mildly comic interlude to the travails of European politics, it also acted as a reminder that, until 20 years ago, the availability of basic commodities could not be guaranteed in Germany’s East. Today, Germany is associated with earnest teutonic efficiency and solidly engineered cars, and it’s all too easy to forget that there are many in the East of the country who still remember Trabants and the unreliable control of communism.

Having become part of a reunified Germany, East Germany lacks the fragile romance that is associated with much of Eastern Europe, and which derives in part from its history of communist rule. It’s something of a grey area, in contrast to the concrete stereotypes of vodka-powered Russia, seedy central Europe, and the backward Balkans. Indeed, in Germany we can observe a reverse balkanisation: whereas the former Yugoslavia has now broken up into individual states, East and West Germany have come together, and any Orientalist romance that the GDR held has been lost in this reunion.

In Legal Tender, John Griffith Urang restores this by examining the narrative of love as it appeared in East German popular culture. Since East Germany is largely absent from popular culture in the West, this is a compelling premise on two levels. Firstly, it reminds us that East Germany had a popular culture of its own, in contrast to the grey, undefined impression that we may have of the country; and secondly, it reveals that in that culture there was space for the romantic narratives generally associated with freer expression than that granted under communist rule.

Urang’s range of examples is admirably broad. He includes both literature and film, though the emphasis is on the former, and considers a broad range of texts from within each form. His argument, that the romantic discourse was used to negotiate a wide range of issues from within East Germany, including the socialist attitude to labour, and the secret police, is both convincing and compelling. However, his treatment of the individual examples is perhaps the great strength of this book.

Particularly fascinating are the magical realist novels of Irmtraud Morgner, whose unfinished Salman trilogy considers multiple permutations of gender and sexuality in a fantastical backdrop, and within the socialist context of the GDR. Unfortunately, only the first volume, The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatriz as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura, has been translated into English, but perhaps more studies like this will increase interest in East German writing and stimulate demand for translation. Urang’s examination of untranslated texts may certainly encourage some readers to learn enough German to read his examples. Who would not be keen to read a novel in which a woman who has already undergone a magical sex change and subsequently split into two bodies buys a house ‘enclosed by an invisible fence and camouflaged by a magic hood’ in which to install her 27 former husbands?

Urang also considers several books published after the fall of Berlin Wall. Thomas Brussig’s satirical Helden wie wir (Heroes Like Us) is one such example. A bawdy comedy about a secret policeman who eroticises his work increasingly bizarre ways, is one particularly fascinating example. Pleasingly, this novel has found an English translator.

The final text examined in Legal Tender is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Having won an Academy Award in 2007, this film became reasonably well known in the West, so as Urang’s cultural history of East Germany draws towards its close, and towards reunification, it is a fitting example to end with. Ultimately, Urang compares the reunited Germany as a marriage of East and West and, of course, marriage is an appropriate analogy in a book about romantic love.

He concludes by considering the roles of East and West Germany in this union. The more masculine West brings stability and financial security, while the East is an ‘other’ subdominant ascription that has traditionally been ascribed to women. However, this study unpacks the culture of that ‘other’ in a sufficiently comprehensive and engaging manner that it more than holds its own against the culture of the West.

RATING 8 / 10