Good-Bye, Lenin!

This weekend I saw Good-Bye, Lenin!, a German movie about a young man who must pretend that East Germany still exists, for the sake of his mother who was in a coma during the fall of the Berlin Wall and therefore remains unaware of the earth-shattering changes the took place while she was unconscious.

There is, of course, the comedy of a young man attempting to recreate a world that no longer exists. But there is also the look into the lives of the people of East Germany. Behind that wall were real people, living their lives day to day. They weren't evil people. And when the wall fell, that life ended.

Of course, this movie also taught me that my German needs a lot of work.

From a "learning German" point of view, I tried to keep track of when the formal "Sie" was used and when the informal "du"/"ihr". Since I didn't grow up in Germany, deciding which form to use is for me still a bit of a puzzlement. (When I spoke with some German college students, they said that my German was okay, except that I kept using the wrong word for "you". Then again, one of them also fell over laughing when I said, "Bilder knipsen". Apparently "knipsen" is the cutesy way of taking pictures. Thanks to my German textbook for not pointing this out.)

Comments (30)
  1. Raymond Chen says:

    College students expected me to use "du" with them from the outset. So possibly "Say ‘du’ to people under 30 when meeting them socially (but use ‘Sie’ when meeting them professionally)." And in the movie, the main character addressed a taxi driver as "du" even though the taxi driver was much older.

    I suspect class plays a role. Once I accidentally addressed a waiter at a casual restaurant as "du" instead of "Sie" and the German native I was with said that was okay.

  2. Martin from Ostdeutschland says:

    Well, class plays a role and job plays a role.

    Sure you can address a waiter in the restaurant as "du", but in a five-star restaurant you should use "Sie".

    Sometimes even how people look and/or behave is important. Lets take that taxi driver for example: If he looks like a typical taxi driver, you could address him with "du". But imagine this guy wears a tie and a business suit in his taxi, then most of the Germans would address him as "Sie" propably. Or the taxi-driver is very old, here you say "Sie" to him, because you want to show him, that you are respecting his age and life experience.

  3. Ulrich says:

    Well, I grew up in Germany and I am still unsure sometimes about whether to use Sie or Du. In confusing situations like speaking to a slightly older or ‘superior’ (businesswise) person in an informal setting (where the choice isn’t obvious) I have become quite adept at avoiding having to use either until the other person uses one or the other first.

    This can get quite stange if the other person chooses to adapt the same strategy.

  4. Steve Sheppard says:

    The same thing applies to English from my point of view. When you meet your boss’s, boss’s, boss do you refer to him as Sir or Mr. xxx? I usually don’t do either until I’ve figured out which he prefers.

    Cops: Sir or Ma’am

    Judges: Your Honor

    Anyone in a social setting: First name

    Old people: Sir or Ma’am

  5. Martin from Ostdeutschland says:

    Speaking German: When to use the informal "du" and the formal "Sie"?

    Say "du" to…

    * children < 18 years old

    * your friends

    * your family members

    * people saying "du" to you

    * people who have offered you to say "du" to them

    Say "Sie" to…

    * your boss, teachers, polititians, cops…

    * business partners

    * people > 18 years you meet for the first time

  6. Norman Diamond says:

    The rules (including both the rules and the ambiguities) seem to be the same as in French, and very similar though mirrored in Japanese. In Japanese there are several ways to say "you" and even more ways to say "I", but they are all best avoided. Usually there are other ways to imply who the subject is (e.g. a question tends to imply "you" and a concrete statement tends to imply "I"). In cases where it is unavoidable, it is usually fairly safe to choose a medium-polite word for "you", but a mistake in the possible choices for "I" can be more dangerous. Then there are also changes over time with society — the word "kisama", which used to be the most polite word for "you", is now usable only as sarcasm in an argument and is asking for a fight.

    Grammar aside, some things never change. Here’s a joke I made up after understanding enough of Japanese society:

    Q. How are Japanese people like floating-point numbers?

    A. When two of them meet, if they appear to be equal to each other, they have to repeat the computation with more and more precision until they figure out which is greater than which.

  7. inabil says:


    I want to see this movie but judging from "Good bye lenin" stopped showing.

    So, where did you see the movie?



  8. Nicole says:

    What did you mean when you said ‘bilder knispen’?

    I’ve tried several combinations but could not figure out what you meant. :o)

    Another hint for ‘Sie’ – you normally are recognizable as being not german, so if you start with Sie it should be not that much problem.

    Other way (calling ‘Du’) could bring more troubel.

  9. Martin says:

    There are many things, that play a role when addressing German speaking people:

    * social state

    * job

    * relationship

    * income

    * behavior

    * haircut, clothes

    * mood

    * wheather

    * …

    Golden rule:

    If you are unsure how to address a German, always use "Sie" first.

  10. Raymond Chen says:

    It’s showing at the Metro Theater in Seattle.

    I was taught that "knipsen" means "to snap".

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the verb has since fallen out of favor.

  11. Robert Morris says:

    The "du" and "Sie" thing reminds me somewhat of the "tú" vs. "Ud." thing in Spanish. Sometimes I’m not sure which to use, though with people younger than me it’s normally "tú"" and with teachers and older people it’s normally "Ud.". I know "Ud." is somewhat wearing off with the younger generation, but it is still correct, and I’d use if if I’m in doubt; I’m sure I have a terrible American accent that gives away that I’m not native, anyway, and they’ll just regard it as one of my many issues with the language. :)

  12. Christian says:

    "Sie" is seldomly "wrong". If people correct you to use "Du" instead, it’s usually better this way than the other way around.

    Other than that here are my rules:

    * If you don’t know the person, use "Sie".

    * If you’re being introduced to someone, pay attention on how you’re being introduced. If your last name is mentioned, use "Sie", otherwise "Du".

    * In a pub, the staff is "Du". In a restaurant, the staff is "Sie".

  13. Florian says:

    "Bilder knipsen" is perfectly fine. The tricky part is maybe to know when to use it. As usual when dealing with human language, there is no real set rule when and how to use it or not to use it. To think up an example, I’d say translating "I walked around and took a few photos" into "Ich bin herumgelaufen und habe ein paar Bilder geknipst" is absolutely acceptable use. But if you were to ask your wife "dear, take a picture of that church" or ask a stranger "could you take a picture of us, please?" then in German you would probably not say "knips mal ein Bild von der Kirche" or "koennen Sie bitte ein Bild von uns knipsen". I’d rather say "mach’ mal ein Bild von der Kirche" oder "koennten Sie ein Photo von uns machen, bitte?".

    But of course it ain’t that easy because in reality I’d probably say to my friend "knips mal die Kirche". :)

    Whatever you do, don’t say "Du" to a cop. You, not being a native speaker, would probably get away with it as would a native speaker if the officer is good humored. But I wouldn’t count on it because if he has a bad day you could get fined for it since it is an offence and, believe it or not, it’s more expensive than calling him/her an idiot.

  14. Centaur says:

    Russian also has an casual “ty” and a formal “Vy” for “you”. The rules are pretty much the same: “ty” is for children, family, friends, and close acquaintances.

    The rule “people saying ‘ty’ to you” applies but not always — school teachers addresses students with “ty” while students address their teachers with “Vy”. On the contrary, in a university: teacher to student or student to teacher or teacher to teacher in presence of students use “Vy”, student to student use “ty”.

    Internet, instant messaging and forums seem to be an exception; in many cases you can address a stranger with “ty” and it will be appropriate. Moreover, changing to the formal “Vy” after having used “ty” for a while can be considered offensive. A saying goes: “When in Internet one says ‘Vy’, in real life one beats your face.”

    Waiters, managers, drivers and other staff are “Vy” (unless you know them personally).

  15. stic says:

    You said du/ihr – when I was lerned German (btw. I’m from Poland, so English isn’t my native either) -> then I was used to use Ihr, Ihere in a way to underline this that a couple of peoples are Sie – to me ;-)

  16. Andrew says:

    As a native english speaker who has lived in Germany, I found the difference between ‘Sie’ and ‘Du’ not too difficult, but sometimes awkward.

    My second company had a ‘progressive’ management team who insisted on being refered to as ‘Du’, even though that felt quite uncomfortable to me.

    I find it easier to use ‘du’ when meeting a friend of a friend for the first time or students/young people, and ‘Sie’ for any other stranger.

  17. I would not have thought that an "Englishman" would visit this film. But: why not? Did you understand all jokes? If not, it is also not bad so. Even German of the western part did not understand all; -)

  18. Rich Ruh says:

    I’m learning German as well (I’m American), and the du vs. Sie thing continues to drive me crazy. I’ve was taught that you should always use Sie with business associates. Then I took a trip to visit a business partner in Munich, and they all insisted I use du! But of course all my language tapes use Sie, so I’m constantly mispronouncing the "du" forms of the verb. Arrgh!

  19. As for Japanese having several forms of ‘you’ and ‘I’, Thai also has tons of them to use in different occasions and knowing what to use when is not so easy. Fortunately subject and object can be implicit in a sentence (as in Japanese).

    For instance women and men use different words for ‘I’, but with close acquaintances men sometimes use the same word as women.

    However when I tried that, my friends just laughed and said I sounded too feminine (and no that’s not because of the pitch of my voice) and forced me to use the more formal male form.

  20. Norman Diamond says:

    4/22/2004 4:28 PM Andreas Magnusson:

    > For instance women and men use different

    > words for ‘I’

    Yes, with some of the informal words for "I", this happens in Japanese too. I don’t think it happens with any of the formal words though. (It also happens with some sentence endings and even an occasional choice of verbs, independently of whether an "I" is involved.)

    > but with close acquaintances men sometimes

    > use the same word as women.

    I have heard that in Japanese too. None of my textbooks hint at such a possibility, but I’ve heard it from at least two people.

    By the way, it is said that the biggest problem in translating the book "I am a Cat" was the very first word. The original word was at a level near what could be described as "the royal we" in English, but not quite. Nonetheless I think "We are a cat" would have brought the meaning across. Surely anyone who has ever been owned by a cat would think the same >^_^<

    Why do all egotists get along? They see I to I. An I for an I and we’ll all be egotists.

  21. Not putting my name on this one! says:

    To the to-"du" list I would add:

    – animals (like your pet dog for example);

    – anyone you are angry at who you would otherwise say "Sie" to;

    – God (assuming you speak to Him regularly, if you don’t maybe you should use Sie until He says it is okay to use "du")

    Rich Ruh – the Germany presumably knew you are American and know that it is common that Americans call each other by first names.

    One thing still confuses me – I by chance meet a young lady and naturally start out formally with Sie. Do I have to wait until after I’ve slept with her before I switch to du?

  22. No Name says:

    One thing still confuses me – I by chance meet

    > a young lady and naturally start out formally

    > with Sie. Do I have to wait until after I’ve

    > slept with her before I switch to du?

    Just wait until she uses Du. Or until you had sex of course, since continuing to use Sie after sex could only happen in very cheesy porn flicks.

  23. Martin says:

    You normally say "Du" when you’re on a first name basis. So when you are being introduced to "Klaus" and "Heinz" there is no need to feel uncomfortable using "Du" in a business/formal environment.

  24. language hat says:

    I just wish receptionists, dentists, &c &c wouldn’t call me by my first name. Is "Mr." vanishing from American use?

  25. sebmol says:
    • anyone you are angry at who you would otherwise say "Sie" to;

      Just don’t do that to any kind of public officials. Insulting public servants in an offense in Germany and will result in a fine. That includes "du", calling them names, yelling at them, walking off, or giving them any kind of offensive hand gesture. Depening on the (perceived gravity of the insult, the fine can go up to thousands of euros/dollars.

  26. Raizlabs says:

    Think Dude say Du

    Think Sir say Sie

  27. c123- says:

    Saw the film last year (it was a minor hit in France) and I too was reminded how much my German had slipped. At the same time I was pleasantlt surprised when some obscure vocabularly (which I don’t recall even learning ;) returned magically :)

    Although I am originally a monolingual Brit, I find it academically hard to understand why people have so much trouble with the informal/formal verb forms found in many other languages, but OTOH in real life I too spend a second or so onoccasion deciding if I should be addressing this person as tu (Du) or vous (Sie; French does not have ‘Ihr’).

    Anyway I find the golden rule is to start off formally unless you have a good reason (you’re addressing a child, the other person is alraedy using ‘Du’ etc) to go informally straightaway.

    When I was at school in Germany over ten years ago, I remember being amused when I was told that some pupils (students) had fun when they turned 16 (or was it 18?) in that they insisted the teacher address them correctly as they were now adults – i.e. the teacher was obliged to use ‘Sie’ instead of the ‘Du’ they usually used.

  28. c123 says:

    WRT Andrew’s remark, , I remember when I worked at McDonalds over there* it was the opposite – in most places in the world, McDs is supposed to be informal, but this was not the case in Germany – all crew members were referred to Herr or Frau Whatever, and Sie was the default (of course after working and chatting with someone, most people would naturally slip into ‘Du’ anyway).

    * For those vaguely interested the McD’s was in Bielefeld (Jahnplatz?), and the school was Das Oberstufenkolleg, and we’re talking c. 1991.

  29. David says:

    In English, we got rid of this problem long ago by ending our use of "thee", "thou", "thy", etc. and using only the word "you." But you know something strange? "You" is the FORMAL form, but "thou" is the informal…crazy, huh? That’s why the King James Bible is full if "thee" & "thou". I wonder what possessed our ancestors to go all-formal, all-the-time… Anyone else heard about this?

  30. Here’s what’s probably the most awkward "Du/Sie" decision: When you’re German and meet other Germans in an English-language setting where everyone uses first names — but when these are people you’d normally never even consider using a first name or "Du" for in German.

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