A son’s devotion to his ailing mother and a country in the process of major change comes crashing together in the 2003 film GOODBYE LENIN!
Directed by Wolfgang Becker
Starring Daniel Bruhl and Katrin Sass
Released by X-Filme Creative Pool
German with English subtitles
121 min. (2003)
Unlike other movies that portray it simply as a cold and menacing environment, Goodbye Lenin! is a tender, humorous, and at times sentimentalized depiction of East Germany. But it’s unique from other films I’ve seen because it deals with both the positive and negative implications of East Germany’s reunification with the West.
The film opens in 1978 where home movies depict Alex Kerner enjoying a perfectly happy childhood. It wasn’t living in the East that caused problems for the Kerner family, but rather the decision of Alex’s father to abandon them for the West. “We never talked about Father again. From then on out our mother was married to the socialist Fatherland” Alex explains to the audience.
11 years later Christiane is just as married to the Fatherland as ever. Katrin Sass gives great depth to the character of Christiane, portraying her as someone that you simultaneously love and want to strangle for her devotion to the German Democratic Republic. The now twenty-something Alex (the adorable Daniel Bruhl) meanwhile is frustrated that his life consists of little more then being his infant niece’s babysitter. As an act of adolescent rebellion Alex likes to attend anti-GDR demonstrations; all that changes one night though when Christiane spots him in a crowd of angry protestors. The look they exchange is heartbreaking- Christiane eyes are full of disappointment and heartbreak, Alex’s are full of sadness and guilt. Christiane is so overcome by Alex’s betrayal that she faints, but a riot breaks out and Alex is unable to get to her.
Because of Christiane’s political status Alex is quickly released from jail, only to find out that she’s had a major heart attack and is now in a coma. For a woman who was so devoted to the communist cause, Christiane Kerner finds herself sleeping through the demise of the GDR and the arrival of capitalism to East Germany. The sequence where Coke trucks start driving through the city is both hilarious and ominous- a great change is coming, but Alex isn’t sure how he feels about it. While he enjoys certain freedoms- such as crossing the border and getting his first taste of pornography- he also notices how the older generation has suddenly found they’re unemployable.
Just as Alex and his sister Ariane have start to feel comfortable in their new life, Christiane wakes up and they receive some troubling news; Christiane’s alive but her heart has been so weakened by the coma that she probably doesn’t have much time left. And most importantly any sort of major stress will certainly end her life for good. Alex and Ariane know the fall of the wall is exactly the kind of stress Christiane can’t take, so they find themselves tasked with the impossible and the major plot twist that affects the rest of the film; how do we hide from our mother the most important event in recent German history?
While everyone else in town is celebrating their new found “freedom” Alex goes to flee markets and rummages through garbage to try and find the last remaining items of a now dead civilization. One particularly funny scene is when he goes to the supermarket and asks the clerk for an old brand of GDR pickles his mother craves. The clerk rolls her eyes annoyed at Alex and replies “why on earth would we keep those? We have pickles from Holland!” As everyone else in the family eventually begins to tire of the charade, Alex begins to find purpose in his life by making sure the past stays alive for his mother although even he knows he can’t keep it up forever. The climax of the film arrives when the bedridden and so far oblivious Christiane wanders outside alone and is inundated with pink furry lamps, IKEA advertising and most shocking of all, a broken statue of Lenin being taken away by helicopter.
As an audience, it is a stretch to believe that an intelligent woman like Christiane would be so unaware of the truth for most of the film. But while the absurdity and sentimentality of the plot do not make Goodbye Lenin a consistently strong film overall I can’t help but love it because of the sincerity of the performances, especially from Bruhl. Make sure you pick this one up next time you want your foreign film fix.