Oedipus in Berlin: How a German television series about the Cold War re-tells an ancient myth

If you’re looking for an excellent television series to watch, I highly recommend The Same Sky, a German production about Berlin in 1974, which you can now stream on Netflix.

I had been complaining on Facebook about how amid all the new detective shows from abroad—especially the noirish/Anglo/Nordic TV series —it was hard to find a series that didn’t rely for its suspense and thrills on either the sexual abuse and rape of women or harm to children. The series Fortitude is one of the worst offenders on this score.  At one point I thought I was going to literally throw up and had to run out of the room to the bathroom. I didn’t throw up, but I didn’t go back either.

The Same Sky is different. It is suspenseful, involving Cold War espionage in a divided Berlin at the height of detente. There are some scary moments, and some unsettling characters, whose stirring malignity you feel but can’t quite figure out. And while there is some harm to children, it’s not pornographic or sadistic. It’s realistic: the kind that flawed—i.e., all—parents inflict on their kids, the psychological harm that families do to each other in the normal pursuit of life.

But what makes the show truly great is that it is almost Greek in its ambitions. In the same way that Greek tragedies tell the story of the city through the story of a family, so does The Same Sky narrate the story of a divided city through stories of that city’s divided families. There’s also a fascinating retelling of the Oedipus story, involving a family broken in two by the Berlin Wall: one side of the family is dedicated to the East German regime and building socialism; the other is dedicated to the West and whatever the West entails (though part of the power of the series is that that is not at all clear.)

In its weaving of family and political history, the series also reminded me of an amazing review that Benjamin Nathans did in the New York Review of Books. The review was about Yuri Slezkine’s new book on the Russian Revolution, which also sounds amazing. Toward the end of the review, Nathans zeroes in on a theme that is evocative of The Same Sky (forgive the long quote; it’s worth your while):

Most histories of the Soviet Union emphasize the failure of the command economy to keep up with its capitalist rivals. Slezkine, however, is not terribly interested in economics. In his account, the Soviet experiment failed, half a century before the country’s actual collapse, because it neglected to drain the oldest, most persistent swamp of all—the family.

In between their epic labors at the great construction site of socialism, residents of the House of Government “were settling into their new apartments and setting up house in familiar ways,” unable to transcend the “hen-and-rooster problems” of marriage and domestic life. Many of them expressed unease at the prospect of sinking into the traditional bonds of kinship and procreation. “I am afraid I might turn into a bourgeois,” worried the writer Aleksandr Serafimovich (Apt. 82) to a friend. “In order to resist such a transformation, I have been spitting into all the corners and onto the floor, blowing my nose, and lying in bed with my shoes on and hair uncombed. It seems to be helping.”

But it wasn’t. No one really knew what a communist family should be, or how to transform relations between parents and children, or how to harness erotic attachments to the requirements of revolution. Bolsheviks were known to give their children names such as “Vladlen” (Vladimir Lenin), “Mezhenda” (International Women’s Day), and “Vsemir” (worldwide revolution). But naming was easy compared to living. The Soviet state went to great lengths to inculcate revolutionary values in schools and workplaces, but not at home. It never devised resonant communist rituals to mark birth, marriage, and death. The party ideologist Aron Solts (Apt. 393) claimed that “the family of a Communist must be a prototype of a small Communist cell…, a collectivity of comrades in which one lives in the family the same way as outside the family.”

In that case, why bother with families at all? Neither Solts nor anyone else had a convincing answer. Sects, Slezkine notes, “are about brotherhood (and, as an afterthought, sisterhood), not about parents and children. This is why most end-of-the-world scenarios promise ‘all these things’ within one generation…, and all millenarian sects, in their militant phase, attempt to reform marriage or abolish it altogether (by decreeing celibacy or promiscuity).”

Unable or unwilling to abolish the family, Bolsheviks proved incapable of reproducing themselves. For Slezkine, this is cause for celebrating the resilience of family ties under the onslaught of Stalin’s social engineering. It’s worth asking, though, why the same Bolsheviks who willingly deported or exterminated millions of class enemies as remnants of capitalism balked at similarly radical measures against the bourgeois institution of the family. Could it be that they, especially the men among them, realized that by doing so they stood to lose much more than their chains?

Whatever the case, the children they raised in the House of Government became loyal Soviet citizens but not millenarians. Their deepest ties were to their parents…not to Marx and Lenin. Instead of devouring its children, he concludes, the Russian Revolution was devoured by the children of the revolutionaries. As Tolstoy’s friend Nikolai Strakhov wrote about the character Bazarov, the proto-Bolshevik at the heart of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (another work about family), “The love affair takes place against his iron will; life, which he had thought he would rule, catches him in its huge wave.”

The Same Sky seems to follow a similar plot twist, only it’s not just children undermining the revolution by their devotion to their parents but also parents undermining the revolution by their devotion to, well, not exactly their children—as I said, there’s a fair amount of psychic harm that is inflicted on children in this series—but to their own ambitions as lived through their children.

It’s telling how much this story departs from the standard Cold War and even post-Cold War narratives that claimed that civil society was pulverized by the totalitarian state. As this series shows, that’s not at all the case; indeed, the one character who lives up to the stereotype of children being willing to rat on their parents is almost a comic figure in this series, singular in his fanaticism. Almost everyone else is drawn to a more human proportion.

What makes the story so tragic and Greek is that the characters are impelled by some invisible force—call it dramatic fate—to act in ways that you can tell will destroy them but that they are pursuing for reasons of salvation and redemption.

13 Comments

  1. Daniel Mandell February 4, 2018 at 3:59 pm | #

    Thoughtful piece. But for an even deeper reach into this theme—how utopian schemes founder on the biological rocks of family and all that goes with that fundamental thing—it would be helpful to add an extended discussion of the efforts by Jewish Palestinian-Israeli kibbutzim to supplant the family with a communist community, with children being raised with all their age group instead of by their parents. It failed, of course, but the effort went on for nearly a century and the way that struggle evolved sheds a lot of light on these bedrock issues.

    • fosforos17 February 4, 2018 at 4:31 pm | #

      From that “amazing” review, this gem:
      “No one really knew what a communist family should be, or how to transform relations between parents and children, or how to harness erotic attachments to the requirements of revolution.” No one? Really?Has he ever read “The Sexual Revolution” by Wilhelm Reich? The families he examines were stalinist hacks and pusillanimous defectors from the opposition hoping against hope that their loyalty to the vzhod would gain forgiveness for having once sympathized with Trotsky.” In short, that apartment for bureaucrats was a phenomenon of counterrevolution, not revolution.

  2. fosforos17 February 4, 2018 at 4:18 pm | #

    I fear that in writing ‘”In the same {sense} that Greek tragedies tell the story of the city through the story of a family, so does The Same Sky narrate the story of a divided city” you fall into an all too common misunderstanding of Greek tragedy, a misunderstanding deriving from the title “Poetics” affixed by some ancient publisher onto the lecture notes of Aristotle’s lecture on Oedipos Tyrranos. The problem is not merely that the classical tragedies correspond in no way to that characterization. What is “the city” limned in Philoktetes, or Helen? Is Andromache or Trojan Women the story of Troy? Is Agamemnon about Mykenae? Bacchae tells of a very different Thebes than was that of Oedipus. Which of course leads to a crucial point–that there is nothing in the actual history of Boeotian Thebes that corresponds to the Oedipus plays, whereas it has been convincingly argued that its outline corresponds to the history of a very different Thebes (today/s Karnak)–a disgraced king (Akhen-aten), followed by two rivals for the kingship (Smenkh-ka-re and Tut-ankh-amen) who died young and one of whom was given an elaborate funeral by the ultimate seizer of power, (Ay) the father of the former queen. It was a sign of his preternatural understanding that Hegel paid no attention to Oedipus Tyrranos but enormous attention to Antigone.

  3. Roquentin February 7, 2018 at 10:57 am | #

    Of all the reasons the Soviet Union failed along with the Marxist-Leninist model more generally, I wouldn’t put this very high on the list. I also find it more than a little disingenuous that the argument ignores the long and very ugly history of population transfer within the Soviet Union, which while not aimed at breaking up the nuclear family per se, was certainly aimed at destroying ethnic ties the government of the USSR viewed as problematic. A radical remaking of society requires an equally large portion of coercion, and the sheer brute force through which this will be accomplished is inevitably the other shoe to drop.

    I know Foucault’s fallen out of fashion on the left these days, but he saw things pretty clearly. Maybe power/coercion always was the central political question, the sort of unsaid remainder, the ironic specter haunting Marxism-Leninism. If anything, I think the left’s current infatuation with 1917 is a sort of willful blindness, trying to very, very hard not to learn anything from the failure of the Soviet experiment. My historical scholarship on the USSR is fair to middling, but if I had to nail down the two biggest causes, they would be:

    1) Simply put, the elite with the USSR and similar countries wanted to be rich. They wanted all the nice things people had in the West, and since they were running the show abandoning communism would work massively in their favor. This is, not coincidentally, why wholesale privatization made a handful of insiders fantastically wealthy. The really justification for the collapse is far more crude and petty than most people will ever get.

    2) A population on the whole which was sick of living under constant coercion and repression. While tolerable in earlier decades, the cruelty of this became naked when not even the people running the party believed in communism anymore. All that was left was the brute force, with none of the utopianism which had previously provided it with a foundation. The argument always went that the suffering was for a better future, without the better future/society portion of it, there was nothing left but wanton brutality of the police state and corruption.

    • Lichanos February 7, 2018 at 6:08 pm | #

      One, two hundred years from now, I think that historians will see the Bolsheviks as just another dynasty, albeit a disruptive and short-lived one. The Chinese CP seems on track for a better chance at dynastic longevity.

      • Roquentin February 8, 2018 at 10:33 am | #

        I’ve deep into reading the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin, which has been really, really good. He’s one of the few people in the West who really gets it. Takes in the West on the Russian Revolution typically fall into two camps: 1) hopelessly idealistic and somewhat naive “what could have been” accounts of the revolution or 2) Vulgar reactionary stories of the monstrous communist boogieman. Kotkin manages not to be either of these, which doesn’t sound like much, but I certainly think it is. I studied Russian in college, so it’s a longstanding interest of mine. Not get get sidetracked, but it’s also why all the recent scaremongering about Russia from centrist liberals made me froth at the mouth. My God, I can’t tell you how sick I am of people who could barely find Russia on a map, who don’t know the first thing about the people, their culture, or history talking as though they were experts because they watched a few minutes of CNN and MSNBC. I have nothing but contempt.

        • Lichanos February 8, 2018 at 2:25 pm | #

          I like to read Soviet-era literature, e.g. Vasily Grossman. I also thought Sebag-Montefiore’s two biographies of Joe were good.

  4. Roquentin February 7, 2018 at 11:15 am | #

    Also, while I’m on my soapbox, it may surprise you to know that in study after study women are the primary viewers of crime shows. Overwhelmingly so. A quick Google search brought up that Investigation Discovery is the top cable channel with women (source: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-et-ct-investigation-discovery-20160105-story.html), so the idea that these shows are purveyors of lurid, misogynistic fantasies is flat out wrong. An easy cheap shot, sure, I’ve heard it repeated plenty, but it is contradicted by the facts on the ground.

  5. Lichanos February 7, 2018 at 6:04 pm | #

    Laid up with a cold, I took your suggestion, and watched The Same Sky, all six in one afternoon. Sorry, but I have to say that it seems to me to be just another slow-burn thriller/soap, albeit a rather intelligent one. The goal of a TV series is to hook viewers, not to make any statements about anything. Such art as there is to be found in them is purely window dressing. Having digested the first season, I don’t even care to find out how it all ends. I’m sure it will be very exciting. 😴😴

  6. Lorenzo from Oz February 19, 2018 at 7:41 pm | #

    On the family the Soviet Union, I believe E O Wilson covered this:
    “What I like to say is that Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species. Why doesn’t it work in humans? Because we have reproductive independence, and we get maximum Darwinian fitness by looking after our own survival and having our own offspring. The great success of the social insects is that the success of the individual genes are invested in the success of the colony as a whole, and especially in the reproduction of the queen, and thus through her the reproduction of new colonies.”
    Often paraphrased as “wonderful idea, wrong species”.
    https://msu.edu/~lotz/classes/s2008humanities/eowilson_on_sociobiology.pdf

    Of course, lots of folk like to go all Lysenko on the notion that us wonderful homo sapiens might be a product of natural selection and that might matter.

  7. Edward February 25, 2018 at 12:20 pm | #

    How much do contemporary Americans embrace the values of the American revolution? I think there was a poll which found many Americans mistook the bill of rights for a Communist document. Today in many ways America is the opposite of that revolution; now it is an empire which undermines democracy/sovereignty abroad. We stand for torture and violations of privacy.

  8. F. Foundling March 25, 2018 at 11:00 pm | #

    From all of this talk, I don’t even get how the family is supposed to have stood in any contradiction to communism in practice. A gender-unequal family, in some ways, perhaps, since any inequality does. A family can act in selfish ways, but so can an individual. During most of their history, most ‘Communist’ regimes were relatively socially conservative and sought to strengthen the family, with Stalin declaring it to be the basic cell of society, divorces made difficult, homosexuality outlawed and so on. Admittedly, the state policies were more socially progressive in the Central European Catholic countries, especially compared to what the Catholic Church would have liked. In any case, maintaining a family was in no way incompatible with Communism, any more than it is incompatible with any participation in any broader community that expects some degree of allegiance and loyalty from its members and gives something in return. There certainly were ‘communist rituals to mark marriage, and death’ – simply civic ceremonies; how ‘resonant’ they were might be a matter of taste, but I certainly prefer them to religious ones. The ‘children ratting on their parents’/Pavlik Morozov thing depends on whether what their parents are doing is truly wrong, the family connection itself shouldn’t even matter in this discussion (are children supposed to be loyal to a parent who is a murderer, for instance?). The alleged incompatibility between communism and family is also contradicted by the existence of entire communist family lines; in my family, for instance, several generations have all been communists since the beginning of the last century. In general, this Slezkine chap sounds like a rather unpleasant reactionary propagandist of a type that I am all too familiar with.

    If I have to think of some manner in which ‘the family’ did indeed subvert Communism, it would have to be the way numerous ‘Communists’ passed down their privilege to their offspring, thereby producing some sort of Red aristocratic elite and thus the exact opposite of the equality that the system was supposed to be devoted to. Many of that offspring subsequently used the education and elite connections that they had received in this way in order to become capitalists or free-market ideologues. Still, even here, just as with selfishness, the underlying issue was privilege itself and the lack of democratic control.

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