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Legal Tender

Legal Tender: Love and Legitimacy in the East German Cultural Imagination

John Griffith Urang
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Legal Tender
    Book Description:

    At first glance, romance seems an improbable angle from which to write a cultural history of the German Democratic Republic. By most accounts the GDR was among the most dour and disciplined of socialist states, so devoted to the rigors of Stalinist aesthetics that the notion of an East German romantic comedy was more likely to generate punch lines than lines at the box office.

    But in fact, as John Urang shows in Legal Tender, love was freighted as a privileged site for the negotiation and reorganization of a surprising array of issues in East German public culture between 1949 and 1989. Through close readings of a diverse selection of films and novels from the former GDR, Urang offers an eye-opening account of the ideological stakes of love stories in East German culture. Throughout its forty-year existence the East German state was plagued with an ongoing problem of legitimacy. The love story's unique and unpredictable mix of stabilizing and subversive effects gave it a peculiar status in the cultural sphere.

    Urang shows how love stories could mediate the problem of social stratification, providing a language with which to discuss the experience of class antagonism without undermining the Party's legitimacy. But for the Party there was danger in borrowing legitimacy from the romantic plot: the love story's destabilizing influences of desire and drive could just as easily disrupt as reconcile. A unique contribution to German studies, Legal Tender offers remarkable insights into the uses and capacities of romance in modern Western culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6006-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Eros and Exchange
    (pp. 1-22)

    At the end of Leander Haußmann’s 1999 film, Sonnenallee, a light romantic comedy set in East Germany in the 1970s, the camera pulls back through the open border to the West, and the color fades to black and white. On the sound track, Nina Hagen sings: “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen, mein Michael” (You forgot the color film, my Michael). In suddenly—and polemically—remembering to forget its own “color film,” Sonnenallee anticipates and satirizes the reactions of a Western audience. As in the scene where the hero and his best friend sarcastically pantomime “oppression” for a West German tour...

  5. 1 Wares of Love: Socialist Romance and the Commodity
    (pp. 23-60)

    The problem is summed up by a pair of juxtaposed photographs in the May 1954 issue of the East German entertainment magazine Das Magazin. The first looks outward from a bookshop at a young couple window-shopping arm in arm (fig. 1). Both are gazing intently at a book entitled Verliebte Welt, (World in Love). The caption reads: “wahre Liebe” (True Love). On the facing page is a photograph of another couple, from the waist down (fig. 2). He is wearing a wrinkled sportscoat and pointed shoes; she a tight sweater, a short floral-print skirt, and stockings. On a billboard behind...

  6. 2 Love, Labor, Loss: Modes of Romance in the East German Novel of Arrival
    (pp. 61-93)

    As we saw in chapter 1, the GDR of the 1950s came to look rather like a consumer culture. This had practical consequences, but also, and perhaps more importantly, philosophical and ideological ones. After all, consumer culture is essentially a response to the questions “Why do we work?” and “What do we get, both as individuals and as a society, for our labor?” Consumer culture answers these questions with commodities: the worker exchanges his or her labor for buying power; society works together to produce more and more consumer goods.

    Officially, the GDR would never have endorsed this view of...

  7. 3 Corrective Affinities: Love, Class, and the Propagation of Socialism
    (pp. 94-129)

    In Pursuits of Happiness, Stanley Cavell explores a genre of American film he calls the “comedy of remarriage.” In the films that comprise this genre, all of which were made between 1934 and 1949, “the drive of [the] plot is not to get the central pair together, but to get them back together, together again” (1–2). Cavell identifies a consistent utopian thread in the remarriage plot, a vision of social transformation that explores the terms and conditions of human happiness. These film comedies, Cavell suggests, are involved in what he calls a “conversation” with American culture, testing it against...

  8. 4 W(h)ither Eros? Gender Trouble in the GDR, 1975–1989
    (pp. 130-163)

    In 1993, Nancy Lukens and Dorothy Rosenberg published an anthology of translations called Daughters of Eve: Women’s Writing from the German Democratic Republic. In their preface, they explain that the title of the anthology is borrowed from Evastöchter, Renate Apitz’s volume of short fiction, “whose title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to an uncomplimentary German term for a stereotypical female and, in the GDR context, clearly ironic” (vii–viii).¹ In the starkly secular GDR, this biblical reference calls attention to itself: when scientific evolutionism is doctrine, what would it mean to claim (even metaphorical) descent from Eve? To judge from the...

  9. 5 Eye Contact: Surveillance, Perversion, and the Last Days of the GDR
    (pp. 164-192)

    When public fury and court injunction opened the archives of East Germany’s Ministry for State Security in 1991, the Stasi became the most transparent secret police in the history of state repression. Historians, lawyers, and victims raced to uncover the complete catalog of the Stasi’s misdeeds, from the banal to the murderous. That the Stasi, that frantic fact collector, would become the object of another such compulsive drive to know suggests a certain historical irony. “One extreme follows another,” Timothy Garton Ash observes in his personal history of Stasi surveillance, The File. “Probably no dictatorship in modern history has had...

  10. Coda: A Chameleon Wedding
    (pp. 193-202)

    If the most satisfying ending to a love story is a wedding, then it might be metaphorically apt to end this historical account on November 9, 1989, with the images seen around the world of people dancing in the streets and atop the Wall. At the conclusion of the German-German love story, this could be a restorative celebration like those that end the comedies of Plautus and Shakespeare. Of such finales, Northrop Frye observes: “As the final society reached by comedy is the one that the audience has recognized all along to be the proper and desirable state of affairs,...

  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 203-216)
  12. Index
    (pp. 217-224)