Good Bye Lenin! (2003)


(director/writer: Wolfgang Becker; screenwriters: Hendrik Handloegten/Bernd Lichtenberg/Christoph Silber/Achim von Borries; cinematographer: Martin Kukula; editor: Peter R. Adam; music: Yann Tiersen; cast: Daniel Brühl (Alex), Katrin Sass (Christiane Kerner), Chulpan Khamatova (Lara), Maria Simon (Ariane), Florian Lukas (Denis), Alexander Beyer (Rainer), Burghart Klaußner (Robert Kerner), Franziska Troegner (Mrs. Schafer), Michael Gwisdek (Principal Dr. Klapprath); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Stefan Arndt; Sony Pictures Classics; 2003-Germany-in German with English subtitles)

“Its geopolitical lessons smacked of banality.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director/writer Wolfgang Becker (“Life Is All You Get”) presents a bittersweet comedy that tries to zero in on all the emotional fervor and drama of the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989, and how it effects an East Germany family that took to socialism in different ways and became separated. It bagged many German and European Film Awards and was Germany’s official submission for the Foreign Film Oscar, as well as becoming its biggest box-office success ever. Yet despite catching the crowd-pleasing mood of modern-day Germany (the reason for its popularity), its geopolitical lessons smacked of banality and its emotions seemed to be playing for the camera rather than attacking any new fields of vision.

After scientist hubby Robert Kerner (Burghart Klaußner) defects to the West, obedient wife Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass) freezes and doesn’t join him as planned with the two children Alex (Daniel Brühl) and Ariane (Maria Simon). She has a mental breakdown and is hospitalized until her self-imposed brainwashing acts as a cure and she returns home gung-ho as an idealistic socialist, a teacher believing in the state’s cause above all else, a Young Pioneer leader, a Party activist, and an optimistic advocate for better consumer products for her fellow comrades. In the background shots, Becker evokes the haunting images of Chairman Honecker’s police state and the police brutality of the GDR under Stasi. The film then suddenly moves ahead a decade to the eventful 1989: Mother on her way to a political meeting sees son Alex at a youth demo against the 40 years under the GDR and collapses from a heart attack while he’s arrested. Her coma lasts eight months.

Becker spins his cheapened metaphorical tale around the cloying scheme that loving son Alex feels that it’s his duty to not tell his mom what she missed during that nap: the country becoming unified and the triumph of capitalism– meaning her dreams of an idealist socialist state are no longer in the cards. It also means porn in the video stores, Burger Kings all over town and a flood of Coca-Cola billboards. The hospital doctors warn that such a shock will be damaging and might bring on another heart attack. So in true sitcom fashion most of the film idles along with a dumb bit of role playing and pretense drama, as mom is taken back to her apartment redecorated as before in dumpy socialist Art Deco. Alex hides that he is hawking satellite dishes and that sister Ariane (Maria Simon) is a Burger King worker, having quit college. Becker walks the line between depicting a daffy political farce and an earnest family drama, but the two never mesh together. At the expense of drawing some laughs by setting up fake TV programs of old news shows via a back room VCR hookup to show mom the Iron Curtain is still pulled down over Germany, the drama is reduced to a crawl. The son becomes a liar and his mother is painted in awe-inspiring angelic robes that made her more a cartoon figure than a real person. Though there were occasional sparks of humor, such as when Alex tells mom the Trabant they ordered has arrived and she incredulously replies: “After only three years of waiting?” But the film had no steady comic flow to keep the laughs coming and the film’s biggest dramatic moment is of a dubious poetical quality — of a giant Lenin statue trailing from a helicopter en route to the junkyard, while mom flees the apartment for the street and is overcome to see an unrecognizable modern consumer world. She faints when looking up to her gesturing godlike Lenin, and returns to her deathbed. From then on the narrative never recovers, as it grows increasingly weary and sentimental. But, nevertheless, the film gains a catchy title.

Good Bye, Lenin! like Alex’s scheme, worked for a little while. But all the lies weighed it down with too much extra baggage. Its not too earth shattering point being that Communism itself was built on a lie and therefore Alex’s mischievous though well-intentioned imaginary motherland and his mother’s fantasy idealistic socialist state are not true, but their dreamy lies don’t matter since the past was a sham. There’s probably a good comedy that could have been made from such a haunting realization. Billy Wilder in his 1961 One, Two, Three did much with less in his coarse Cold War farce by using Coca-Cola as the symbol of American capitalism to attack consumerism. While Becker had such an easy target as an outdated and failed Communist system, yet only pointed out the obvious political defects and could find no sustainable humor at the expense of capitalism in all the Coca-Cola advertisements spotted throughout the film.