Good Bye Lenin!

2003 Berlin, Belgrade, Cannes, Moscow, Karlovy Vary, Toronto, Athens, Rio de Janeiro, Valadolid, Tokyo
2004 Portland, Shanghai, Jakarta

Considering what a monumental event it’s been in the history of our planet, the fall of communism in Europe almost a decade and a half ago has inspired amazingly few memorable films on the subject – in fact, no particular titles leap to mind. This is one of the reasons why Good Bye, Lenin! is something special. In a disarmingly entertaining fashion, this multiaward-winning German bittersweet comedy seems to encapsulate all the emotion and drama of that profound geopolitical event. It’s the story of Alex (Daniel Brühl), an East Berlin teenager, circa 1989, and Christiane (Katrin Sass), his proudly patriotic mother — a woman whose natural devotion to socialism has been fortified by her husband’s cowardly defection to the West. One day, just as the turmoil that will lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall gets under way, Christiane has a heart attack, lapses into a coma and wakes up eight months later — just as communism has collapsed and the long divided country is about to be reunited… Alex can’t tell her what has happened to her world, and he spends the rest of the movie going to outrageous lengths to make her believe East Germany is not only still intact, but thriving… In a small miracle of agility, director Wolfgang Becker walks the tightrope between pathos and farce with a completely straight face, and he captures the 20th century’s most climactic moment in such an offbeat but satisfying way that his little film could well become a classic.
– William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

‘Konsumterror’, translated in my dictionary as “pressures of a materialistic society”, was one of the ways in which the state-controlled media of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) characterised life in the capitalist ‘wild’ west. An intelligently playful take on this notion informs the irresistible high concept driving Wolfgang Becker’s wonderful bittersweet comedy. Having been in a coma at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, dedicated socialist Christiana unknowingly awakes to a changed GDR. Warned by her doctors that any shock could kill her, Christian’s son Alex frantically tries to prevent her from discovering the collapse of the country whose ideals she espoused (“My mother was married to our socialist Fatherland,” he explains), ensuring that everything in their standard-issue 79-square-metre apartment is a product of the now-defunct communist era.

The deception – after he has restored the flat to its pre-flashy-western-makeover state – begins with consumer perishables. Alex rescues empty jars for Spreewald gherkins and packets for Mocca Fix Coffee from rubbish bins and fills them with the western goods that have now replaced these GDR items in East Berlin’s shops. The film-makers’ choice of products is telling – the gherkins are a German food with heritage, reclaimed smartly by private concerns soon after reunification, while sedimented memories of East German coffee, which disappeared overnight, provide rich comic territory.

The complex desires created around branded western goods (intensified in the GDR by prohibition of, and surreptitious access to, West German TV) are enduring motifs in representing German reunification. Becker makes brilliant use of them, while also smartly attracting necessary product placement. Alex’s pragmatic sister Ariane gets a job at Burger King with her cheerful West German boyfriend, but Alex’s efforts, in the best tradition of well-intentioned comic deception, take on absurdist proportions as the outside world starts to intrude – through massive Coca-Cola banners and advertising blimps outside the window of their flat. When Christiane demands to watch the TV news, Alex recycles old broadcasts on video, then re-edits them to explain away the evidence of her own eyes. In the movie’s most surreal gag, he has one of the bulletins explain that Coca-Cola has been forced to relinquish its patent to the GDR, where it was invented.

Becker, director of the justifiably successful Life Is All You Get (an in-joke cameo by Jurgen Vogel nods to the earlier film), is expert at depicting comic insecurity and is in his element here. Good Bye, Lenin! could have remained at the level of farce and contented itself with riding the current wave of partly fetishistic ‘stalgie’– or nostalgia – among an audience who may have been children in the GDR and grown to maturity in post-unification Germany. Instead it becomes increasingly emotionally intricate without sacrificing humour or accessibility to non-German audiences.

When Christiane leaves the flat and is confronted by her transformed neighbourhood, a helicopter flies past, carrying a strikingly iconic, digitally enhanced statue of Lenin, his outstretched hand appearing to reach out to her imploringly. Alex’s ‘re-creations’ of GDR Aktuelle Kamera news broadcasts become, as his voiceover tells us, depictions of East Germany as he would have liked it to be, not the “real existing socialism” of everyday experience. His bulletins describe a state living up to its professed ideals, to which thousands of West Berliners “oppressed by the daily battle for survival” would feasibly flock, tearing down the Wall in a reversal of actual events.

Alex wants his father as much as a Fatherland and he finds him in his comfortable villa in Wandsee after Ariane has bumped into him at work (when pressed by Alex about what she said to him, Ariane replies: “Thank you for choosing Burger King”). Despite the effective lightness of comic touch, though, happy endings are not on offer. The emotional core of this coming-of-age comedy is a boy’s love for his mother; and both ex-DEFA star Katrin Sass as Christiane and Daniel Brühl as Alex make us believe this premise with subtle, winning performances. The revelation that Christiane chose to stay in the east rather than joining her husband in West Berlin due to a failure of nerve complicates, rather than resolves, the movie’s relationships and its take on the GDR (particularly given that Christian’s devotion to the state manifests itself in constructive ‘consumer critiques’ of GDR goods).

When Alex tells us at the end that his memories are of a land that never really existed and which is, in his mind, completely bound up with his mother, the feeling is one of personal loss, with faint echoes of regret for lost ideals. The national past has been invoked through the figure of the mother in German cinema before (Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Germany Pale Mother, 1980, for example) but rarely in the context of such a witty, thought-provoking and ultimately moving tragicomedy.
– Richard Falcon, Sight and Sound, September 2003.

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