Posts tagged ‘education’

childhood’s refugees: Goodbye Lenin!

Goodbye Lenin!

A hilariously touching coming-of-age story, Goodbye Lenin! not only places the protagonists at a contemporary transitional threshold of very late teens/early twenties but also defines modern adulthood as taking control of the lie you live.

Germany’s unification is shown as something driven by youth who first fear an empty adulthood perpetually waiting for poor-quality necessities but are then left adrift by a first surge of capitalism that offers no adulthood at all, only menial jobs that fund ephemeral childish entertainments. The focus is on one family who, since the father’s defection into the West (and the arms of a western mistress), have been defined by their mother’s passionate Socialist activism. Ariane, a young mother, is forced to give up studying for an economics degree and experience the business world directly as a fast-food worker. Her little brother finds a job mocking his youthful dreams of following the East German cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn into space, selling satellite tv door to door. The wonder of outer space has been replaced by the capitalist utilitarianism of bringing massive spectator sports events to the dull-eyed masses, each in their separate boxes.

The speed of this change is striking. Their mother, Christiane, lies in a coma for only eight months (caused by the heart attack she suffered, seeing her son arrested for striking against the state she’d devoted her life to), but her children struggle to comprehend, let alone recreate, that former world to protect her fragile health. “I can’t believe we used to wear this shit,” Ariane complains, already missing her gaudy new clothes. All the food brands their mother requests have disappeared from shelves, driving Alex to dumpster-dive for old jars to sterilise and re-use.

Despite being set a generation behind the present, this film captures a very contemporary feeling better than any film set recently: how do young people grow up when the world they’ve been prepared for is wiped away in – seemingly – moments? My own generation, awkwardly perched between X and Y, was pushed to embrace technological education (with all the debt that brings) and specialise in order to be valuable as part of a well-paid, globalised, free-moving world workforce, and when we are at the age of these siblings, that crumbled with the same finality as the Cold War Eastern Bloc.

Despite the frantic improvisation required to keep his mother (possibly) convinced her beloved state is still functional, Alex comes to see the tiny world he’s made as a quiet haven from the chaos of change outside – just as his mother is able to get out of bed and takes a stab at reclaiming her independence by going outside. There she finds a riot of advertising, consumer goods, and most bizarrely telling, a statue of Lenin being airlifted out of the city (presumably to the scrapyard), seeming to wave solemnly to her as it passes. Does she realise now what has happened, is that why she is able later to tell her children that their despised father did not run away with another woman but emigrate, expecting her to follow with his family? Deeply frightened by the police interrogation and the likelihood of losing her children if she applied for a visa, Christiane had created and wholeheartedly embraced a fantasy that made the feared communist state a beloved protector that required her constant support. This gave her a meaningful life as the go-to person in their area for help with every small problem, but deprived her children of even their father’s letters, let alone presence, and she does not know whether she truly made the right choice.

Passing this burden on to her offspring is – along with Ariane and her partner’s new attitude toward being a parents rather than reluctant babysitters – a first indication they’ve become real adults. Christiane is able to die somewhat contented, even accepting someone else’s comforting fantasy, because Alex proves he can carry it. In order to camouflage the markers of change he couldn’t hide, he’d enlisted first his cinema-mad work partner and eventually an entire circle of friends to create fake newscast videos. The first claimed Coca Cola had been discovered to be a socialist invention of the 1950s (hence why the building across the way suddenly sprouted the iconic red banner); the second explained the world Christiane had wandered into as populated by West German refugees, desperate to escape the miserable life suffered under capitalism; and his final pièce de résistance incorporated both his childhood hero (once cosmonaut, now a taxi driver) as the new East German leader and actual footage of the Berlin wall being torn down – as West Germans poured into the city to embrace the potentials of socialism while rejecting the soul-killing goals of mindless consumerism.

Christiane drifts away while fireworks and celebrations break out in the streets below, letting herself believe they celebrate a humanitarian socialist unification (not knowing that newly united Germany’s football team had just won the World Cup). Her children will not achieve their dreams of space travel, but they have synthesized from East and West their own compassionate meanings to guide them through the chaos of change. It left me feeling quite sad, actually, seeing this just after the historic US healthcare bill finally passed, among a flood of reflexive selfishness and fear-mongering. Unlike this family, my own generation seems to have claimed a much darker and short-sighted set of meanings as our guiding star.

riding in cars with middle-aged conmen: An Education

An Education

An Education is more a self-indulgent character study wrapped in a memoir than a gripping narrative, but its central question is an interesting one: What is an education, and what’s the point of earning one anyway?

Jenny is one of those teens so gifted that her choices and future are entirely in the care of self-appointed responsible adults, and just as preternaturally poised and self-confident as we generally choose to remember our adolescent selves. Her teachers and nervously middle-class parents push her toward Oxford (encouragement many bright girls of the time would likely have envied), but exactly what she or they expect to come of it is a mystery. Worse, her parents’ rigid repression proves to be only a flimsy shield protecting deep insecurity and social isolation – they epitomise the cliché that truly respectable people don’t have to work at it – and they are more susceptible than their young daughter to the charms of an obvious conman who brings a glimmer of novelty and respect to their drab lives. Because she keeps up her grades while melting effortlessly into David’s world of spiv glamour, jazz clubs and auctions and minor larceny, they offer no resistance to unchaperoned weekends across Europe. In fact, they’re pleased when he proposes to their 17-year-old daughter, and advise her to abandon the collegiate plans they’ve spent their lives planning – after all, why bother with Oxford when she’s already found a wealthy husband?

There’s little conflict in the narrative, and it doesn’t even inspire the anticipatory dread a modern audience would be expected to feel at what would now be considered paedophilia. The older man, while a criminal and schoolgirl fetishist, is a bit creepy but clearly not a rapist. Her parents and friends know who she’s with and where and are impressed rather than punitive. The ages when a woman would be “ruined” by a sexual affair are passing, and those few who voice that opinion are patently ridiculous.

Jenny’s brief engagement to her paramour is only a speed bump – she’s able to return to her studies with a newly kindled academic passion and does, in fact, get into Oxford, where she pretends to be naive – because, after all, she’s getting a good education so that she can be whomever she wants, and “prematurely jaded pseudo-sophisticate” is no longer to her taste. Much of her new enthusiasm for had work is inspired by a visit to a former teacher’s quite awesome spinster apartment, a space full of intellectual adventure, funded by the secure paycheck that allows a woman to be and be with whoever she has the guts to pursue. Has Jenny truly found who she wants to be, or is she merely following someone else down another attractive path?

What is an education, and why bother to get one?  Middle-class girls today are expected to have more to their future than “teacher, wife, or civil service,” but it’s still a worthwhile question rarely contemplated before the middle of an expensive course of study.  Why not leap directly from girl to woman, especially when your culture offers no definitive threshold between childhood and adulthood?  And is a degree or two still primarily a bulwark against the fickleness of male partners?

My inadequate answer: if you’ve got the motivation to learn without external prodding (and the patience to suffer through demoralising teachers and fellow students to get to the excellent ones), further education is the opportunity to take on adult responsibilities and pleasures in chunks, and enjoy a much greater variety of both.  And at the end, hopefully, you won’t expect anyone else to give or deny you a weekend in Paris.