I am generally not a fan of sentimental films. That is not to say that I think films should lack strong emotion, only that certain ones elicit emotion in a way that is simplistic to the point of being patronizing and grotesque. Good Bye, Lenin! flirts with sentimentality a little too much, but in the end it has a strong enough voice to overcome its more base qualities. The film is very unique, both in its story and in its overall form, and this is what pulls it above other “quirky” tragicomedies.
I cannot name any other dramatic comedies surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that is not all that separates Good Bye, Lenin! from the crowd. There is an approach in the direction that draws the audience into a far-fetched plot with relative ease. We are made to laugh at the predicament, but still sympathize with the devotion that drives the characters over each new hurdle. If nothing else, it must be said that Good Bye, Lenin! is an effective film. It offers an interesting approach to a monumental part of modern history, and though the cracks occasionally show at times, Good Bye, Lenin! ultimately prevails.
The film begins in October of 1989 in East Berlin. Alex (Daniel Bruhl) lives with his mother, Christiane (Katrine Sass), his sister, Ariane (Maria Simon), and Ariane’s infant daughter. Alex’s father abandoned the family and fled to West Germany years prior, pushing Christiane to support the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany with an almost fanatical fervor. While attending an anti-government rally, Alex falls into police custody and Christiane, having witnessed his arrest, suffers a heart attack that puts her into a coma. During a visit to the hospital to see his mother, Alex meets her nurse, Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), and the two quickly begin a relationship. Shortly after Christiane’s accident, the Berlin Wall falls, and capitalism is introduced to East Berlin. Over the following eight months, Alex and his sister grow accustomed to the drastic changes, only to have Christiane awaken in a severely weakened state. The doctor warns Alex that any shock or distress will very likely kill her. Afraid that the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent collapse of Christiane’s life work would prove too much for her, Alex lies about the current state of affairs in Germany, convincing his mother that the Socialist Party has made great advances in her absence. As Christiane begins to recover and becomes more self-sufficient, Alex has an increasingly difficult time maintaining the facade and protecting his mother from discovering the new world outside her window.
Despite its imperfections, Good Bye, Lenin! does many things right; first and foremost, it allows itself to be comedic. Given how implausible the premise is, it would be a shame if director Wolfgang Becker had attempted a purely dramatic film. However, it still leans far too much on the tragedy of the mother/son relationship, insofar as Alex’s entire scheme is predicated on the belief that his mother will die very soon. It is a film about a son’s unflinching devotion to his mother, but there are frequently awkward shifts in tone throughout the story, as if the filmmakers were never quite sure what kind of film they wanted to make. It meanders back and forth between serious and silly, and the lengths that Alex goes to often border on the absurd, which would have been fine if it had been crafted in a way that was purely comedic, but because the story is so dramatic and generally takes itself a bit too seriously, the unbelievable coincidences and over-the-top situations just come across as cheap, lazy storytelling.
This is not to say that Good Bye, Lenin! is a bad film. It is most definitely a well-made, unique story, with solid performances and direction. While it flirts with certain ideological and philosophical quandaries (namely capitalism versus socialism), they are never really discussed in-depth, instead they merely serve as the backdrop for Alex’s complicated relationship with Christiane. Nonetheless, the film is highly enjoyable; however, for those of us who are a bit too cynical for those sugary-sweet stories in which love conquers all and family is the only thing that truly matters in life, Good Bye, Lenin! can be a bit too much for its own good.
Good Bye, Lenin! is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.
Rating: ★★★½ stars out of 5
East Berlin, 1989. In the final days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are riots against the regime. A loyal communist named Christiane (Katrin Sass) sees her son, Alex (Daniel Bruhl), beaten by the police on television, suffers an attack of some sort and lapses into a coma. During the months she is unconscious, the wall falls, Germany is reunified and the world as she knew it disappears. When she miraculously regains consciousness, the doctors advise, as doctors always do in the movies, "the slightest shock could kill her."
What to do? After her husband abandoned her (for another woman, she told her children), the German Democratic Republic became her life. To learn that it has failed ignominiously would surely kill her, and so Alex decides to create a fictional world for her in which Eric Honecker is still in office, consumer shortages are still the rule and the state television still sings the praises of the regime.
"Goodbye, Lenin!" is a movie that must have resonated loudly in Germany when it was released; it is no doubt filled with references and in-jokes we do not quite understand. But the central idea travels well: Imagine an American Rip Van Winkle who is told that President Gore has led a United Nations coalition in liberating Afghanistan while cutting taxes for working people, attacking polluters and forcing the drug companies to cut their bloated profits. Sorry, something came over me for a second ...
Change, when it comes to East Germany, arrives in a torrent. Alex is reduced to plundering dumpsters for discarded cans and boxes which contained GDR consumer products that were swept away by the arrival of competition. In his day job, he sells satellite systems with his friend Denis (Florian Lukas), and together the two of them produce phony news broadcasts to show his mom -- even enlisting a former East German astronaut for plausibility.
This works fine until one day Christiane ventures outside, finds the streets awash with Westerners and is confused by all the ads for Coke. Improvising desperately, Alex and Denis produce newscasts reporting that the West is in collapse, Westerners are fleeing to the East and the rights to Coke reverted to the communist nation after it was revealed that its famous formula was devised, not in Atlanta, but in East Germany.
"Goodbye, Lenin!" is a comedy, but a peculiar one. Peculiar, because it never quite addresses the self-deception which causes Christiane to support the communist regime in the first place. Many people backed it through fear, ambition or prudence, but did anyone actually love it and believe in it? The scenes of joyous East Berliners pouring across the fallen wall are still fresh in our minds. Toward the end of the movie, we get a surprise plot point that suggests Christiane may have replaced her husband with the party in an act of emotional compensation, but that seems to be stretching.
We all feel nostalgia for the environs of our past, of course, which is why someone like me once treasured a 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk even though new cars are incomparably better made (they aren't as sexy, though). There are fan clubs in Germany for the Trabant, the singularly ugly and poorly made official auto of the GDR, and great is Christiane's delight when Alex tells her the family now owns one. Our pasts may be flawed, but they are ours and we are attached to them. What "Goodbye, Lenin!" never quite deals with is the wrong-headedness of its heroine. Imagine a film named "Goodbye, Hitler!" in which a loving son tries to protect his cherished mother from news of the fall of the Third Reich.
Well, maybe that's too harsh. "Goodbye, Lenin!" is not a defense of the GDR, which Alex and his sister, Ariane, are happy to see gone (she's proud of hew new job at Burger King). The underlying poignancy in this comedy is perhaps psychological more than political: How many of us lie to our parents, pretending a world still exists that they believe in but we have long since moved away from? And are those lies based on love or cowardice? Sometimes, despite a doctor's warnings, parents have to take their chances with the truth.