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GOODBYE LENIN, 2003
Starring Daniel Brühl, Kathrin Sass, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon, Florian Lukas
In 1990, the Berlin Wall is about to fall. A fervent East German comrade, Christiane Kerner, falls into a coma during the eight months in which Germany is reunified, and capitalism replaces communism as the ideology of choice. When Christiane wakes up, doctors warn her son Alex and daughter Ariane that another shock will kill her. Alex fabricates a world where the Wall has never fallen and the DDR still reigns. Can he keep the secret from his mother forever?
Goodbye Lenin is a heartfelt comedy with historical scope and a bittersweet edge. For viewers who grew up during a time when the Cold War was not a concept but a way of life, Goodbye Lenin will no doubt bring back memories. For those of us who can’t remember an East and West Germany, though, it provides fascinating documentation of life in the Eastern bloc, the rapidity of the turnaround after the Berlin Wall fell, and the aftermath, good and bad, for residents of East Germany. It does this all while introducing us to amusing and sympathetic characters and has us hoping beyond hope that Alex will succeed in keeping an allusion of East Germany alive for his beloved mother.
The film begins in 1978, when young Alex and Ariane Kerner are watching Sigmund Jähn become the first German to land on the Moon. It solidifies young Alex’s desire to be a cosmonaut, as we find out from his narration which links the events of the film and provides wry commentary on the scenes before us. That day, too, DDR (German Democratic Republic) officials visit their mother, Christiane (Kathrin Sass), grilling her for the whereabouts of their father. Their father has been lured by capitalism and the West, Alex’s narration tells us, and he has left the family forever. “My mother was so depressed she stopped talking.” Alex’s mother quickly recovers, however, and she becomes married to her country. She has boundless energy for working with children, campaigning, and dedicating her life to the Party.
Flash forward to 1989. On the eve of the 40th Anniversary of the DDR, grown up Alex (Daniel Brühl) lives with his mother, working as a TV repairman. His sister Ariane (Maria Simon) is studying economics and being a single parent to her baby, Paula. While Alex is half-heartedly joining the students in their anti-Wall march, he meets Lara (Chulpan Khamatova). Before they can strike up a conversation, however, chaos descends as DDR police break up the march. Christiane witnesses this brutality and suffers a heart attack, which lands her in a coma in the hospital. The doctors are uncertain that she will ever wake up. Alex doesn’t give up hope, however, installing tape recorded, timed messages in her hospital room for when he can’t visit in person.
While Christiane is sleeping, great changes are sweeping the country. The Berlin Wall falls, and with amazing rapidity, the way of life East Germans have known for decades falls away as the country reunifies. Alex loses his job at the TV repair shop and instead becomes teamed up with aspiring filmmaker Denis (Florian Lukas) as cable satellite disc salesmen. Ariane takes up a job at the newly opened Burger King. She meets Rainer who becomes her live-in boyfriend, who introduces her to “ways of the Orient.” Their drab flat transforms as Western goods come in with Western ideals. Alex also finds Lara again, at the hospital; she is a Russian student nurse.
When Christiane miraculously gains consciousness eight months later, the doctors warn Alex and Ariane that any great shock will result in another heart attack; “we can’t give you hope that she’ll survive the next one.” Alex is determined to take her home from the hospital and create the illusion that her East German way of life hasn’t changed a bit in order to shield her from the shocking truth. Ariane is more skeptical, but the two plus Rainer and the tenement block neighbors dutifully collude. They re-fashion the flat with dull curtains and retrieve the old portraits of Lenin and Che Guevara. At rummage sales, Alex retrieves pre-capitalist clothes. “Look at the crap we used to wear!” Ariane snaps at baby Paula.
At first the scheme works well, as Christiane is confined to bed. Her innocuous request for Spreewald pickles, an East German delicacy, sends Alex racing to old shops and going through dumpsters, to the chagrin of the neighbors. He begins an elaborate campaign of retrieving old packaging for East German products and filling them with new merchandise, all done on the kitchen table. The absurdity and the satire elicit smiles from the audience, but not so to Ariane, who is still unsure about the lengths Alex is willing to go to keep their mother in the dark. Alex finds a stash of Spreewald pickles in an old, abandoned flat he and Lara hide out in for moments alone.
As Christiane gets increasingly curious about the outside world, however, Alex enlists Denis’ help and together they rig old DDR news footage to appear like current news reports. An unfortunate publicity stunt by Coca Cola leaves Christiane questioning, but Denis and Alex create their own news program and convince Christiane “Coca Cola was a socialist invention.” On the occasion of Christiane’s birthday, Alex pays local boys to dress up and sing old communist songs while the neighbors find a bizarre charm in reimagining East Germany through the eyes of the idealistic Christiane. As the posturing spins further and further out of control, Ariane has made a shocking discovery: she has seen their father. He was a customer at Burger King, so he must live somewhere in Berlin.
Goodbye Lenin is a very funny film, gentle and absurd at the same time. The world around the Kerners may be at extremes, but the family itself is genuine and grappling as best it can with the change of scene. Alex’s devotion to his mother may take unorthodox forms, but the bond between them is without question. Christiane is never an object of ridicule for her clinging to her communist belief system; indeed, “the GDR I [Alex] created for her increasingly became the one I had wished for.” It’s a smart and wistful political/historical film with a heartfelt center. Christiane’s surprising revelation at the end of the film brings a new dimension to her character.
Goodbye Lenin will educate anyone curious about life during and after the Berlin Wall, and it will entertain in the process.