Good Bye, Lenin! (Germany, 2003) *** 1/2
Directed by Wolfgang Becker. Written by Bernd Lichtenberg & Mr. Becker. Photography, Martin Kukula. Editing, Katja De Bock & Andreas Schreitmüller, Music, Yann Tiersen. Producer, Stefan Arndt. A Sony Pictures Classics release. In German with subtitles. 118 minutes. Rated R (far too severely). Cast: Daniel Brühl (Alex), Katrin Sass (Christiane Kerner), Chulpan Khamatova (Lara), Maria Simon (Ariane), Florian Lukas (Denis) and Alexander Beyer (Rainer).
Directed by Wolfgang Becker. Written by Bernd Lichtenberg & Mr. Becker. Photography, Martin Kukula. Editing, Katja De Bock & Andreas Schreitmüller, Music, Yann Tiersen. Producer, Stefan Arndt. A Sony Pictures Classics release. In German with subtitles. 118 minutes. Rated R (far too severely). Cast: Daniel Brühl (Alex), Katrin Sass (Christiane Kerner), Chulpan Khamatova (Lara), Maria Simon (Ariane), Florian Lukas (Denis) and Alexander Beyer (Rainer). A colossal hit in Germany where it won “Best European Film” plus a slew of other awards; in France where it also won as “Best European Film”; a host of other prizes in Festivals all over the map. It was released in the U.S,A in late February 2004. It was worth the waiting –but is not easy to pigeonhole in a specific genre as it deals with several themes that it juggles beautifully.
In Communist East Berlin live Christiane, her daughter Ariane et her son Alex. Flashbacks take us to the time when the father, an M.D., went to West Germany—and never came back. Christiane had a major breakdown, but eventually recovered. Now the kids are grown up. Alex, 20, in his comments states that is mother remarried –not to a man but to Socialism. She became a true believer and mainly got involved in teaching children, lovingly. I say “Socialism” rather than “Communism” because she was critical of several features of the latter.
East Germany, alias GDR (German Democratic Republic), is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary. But things are changing. Much of the country is in turmoil and against the regime. Christiane, on her way home runs into a mass student demonstration (not a riot as some people have stated) and sees the police beating up her son. She has a heart attack yet survives, bedridden, immobile and mute.
Alex constantly visits and talks to her lovingly. Almost miraculously, after a very long, good (and free) hospitalization she comes out of her coma. The doctors want to keep her at the clinic, but Alex insists, for her own good, to take her home. He is however warned that she is fragile, that any shocks would kill her. And there could be shocks aplenty!
From the start of her eight months in the hospital to now, everything has changed –gigantically. The infamous Berlin Wall went down – the GDR ceased existing and was reunified with West Germany. Now there’s just one Germany.
So a charade is born, one that pretends the GDR is alive and well. Alex, aided by his sister, his girlfriend Lara (a Russian student-nurse,) friends, neighbor plus others, reconstitutes the family’s apartment to what it used to be, retrieves the discarded old furniture, dips in garbage to find containers of the mother’s favorite pickles (don’t ask), spare no efforts. Visiting fiends and neighbors must dress in old, shabby GDR clothes and watch their words.
It works, but ‘taint easy. The former East Germany is now invaded by Coca-Cola and like ads, shiny new cars, Burger Kings, and other Western blessings. From her bed, if Christiane notices odd details Max manages to hide the truth When a briefly unsupervised Mom does steps out, explanations require much inventiveness. Alex distracts her about the cars by telling her “we finally got our Trabant.,” “Wonderful… and only after a three-year wait!” she exclaims. (The Trabant was the GDR’s Volkswagen, primitive and junky but a collectible nowadays!)
Because of my aversion to plot-revealing I am keeping mum on other developments, revelations, Christiane’s long-gone ex-husband, and the ways Max and buddies concoct TV programs –fake news about the many good things happening in the GDR.
Most former East Germans are pleased with the new status quo, notably the younger people, but some of the old-timers are not. “Ost” means “East” in German. There is in the movie as well as off-screen a major chunk of “Ostalgia” which means Nostalgia for the East. It is handled cleverly. Its main point is that with the former GDR’s abrupt shift from communism to capitalism there is a new flood : business, mercantilism, crass commercialism and the like. Before, the people drowned in propaganda. Now they are flooded by publicity for “buy, buy, buy” and “sell, sell, sell,” globalization and such.
The great Billy Wilder who made the funny-- but neglected-- “One,Two,Three” about capitalism and communism in Berlin would have loved this picture. And the memorable last words of Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” would also apply here: “Nobody’s Perfect!”
The acting, notably Daniel Brühl’s (Alex), is solid, convincing, mercifully free of star turns, and of hitting the audience on the head with profound statements. Even the brief scene of a helicopter dragging the top half of a Lenin statue (no doubt to a junkyard) avoids visual rhetoric.