1. BRIEF REVIEW
Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye Lenin is one of the rare films that manages to be both a laugh riot and a tearjerker, sometimes shifting between comedy and tragedy in the space of a few minutes. It is the story, told thoughtfully and with great attention to detail and historical accuracy, of a young man (Alex) and the ways in which he and his friends and family seek to deal with the disappearance of the German Democratic Republic; at the same time, it is the story of Alex' relationship to his ailing mother, whom he seeks to protect from the shock of the fall of the Berlin Wall by recreating East Germany within their flat. While much of the humour and historical allusions may not be entirely accessible to non-German audiences, at its core, it is a beautiful story, touchingly acted, that is worthwhile for anyone.
2. SPOILER-FREE SYNOPSIS
Director: Wolfgang Becker
Alex Kerner: Daniel Brühl
Christiane Kerner: Katrin Saß
Ariane Kerner: Maria Simon
Denis Domaschke: Florian Lukas
The Kerner family of East Berlin is a family like any other. Christiane, mother of two grown children, teaches at the Polytechnische Oberschule Werner Seelenbinder. The oldest, Ariane, divides her time between caring for her infant daughter, Paula, and studying economic theory at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, while her younger brother Alex repairs television sets at the PGH Fernsehreparatur Adolf Hennecke. Their father disappeared into the West when Alex was a young boy and fan of cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn.
By the late '80s, things are pretty stable for the Kerner family. Christiane, certainly not a fanatical supporter of the Honnecker regime, is a patriot, whose idealism causes some of her colleagues to look askance. She spends her free time writing Eingaben, the petitions that provided one of the very few escape valves for the everyday frustrations of East German life.
As much room for improvement as she sees in East Germany, she firmly believes that "if everyone just leaves, nothing's ever going to change."
It is just this idealism that has Christiane out on the night of 7 October 1989, the 40th anniversary of the DDR. But while she's hailing a cab to get home from the celebrations, Alex is participating in one of the many mass demonstrations that ushered in the last days of the DDR. Because of the massive presence of the Volkspolizei, or People's Police, she decides to get out of the cab early and walk the rest of the way home.
At that very moment, she sees the Grüne lacing into her son with billy clubs and arresting the demonstrators. Shocked, she falls to the ground with a heart attack. When Alex is released to see her in the hospital, he discovers that she's in a coma, from which she may never awake.
While she sleeps, everything she knows disappears. Erich Honecker steps down as Staatsratsvorsitzender (Chairman of the State Committee), the Politbüro resigns, the border dividing the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic transforms from one of the most heavily defended borders in the world to a quaint historical landmark. Alex' employer, the PGH Fernsehreparatur Adolf Hennecke, is declared redundant (abgewickelt), and he joins a satellite television sales team. Ariane drops out of university to work at Burger King, and starts seeing Rainer, her co-worker from the West. Heroes of Labour join the ranks of the reserve army of labour, and her entire home is redecorated.
Then, by some miracle, Christiane awakes from her coma. The doctors warn that she cannot bear to be overexcited for fear of another heart attack, and insist that she remain in the hospital. Alex feels that it will be easier to avoid exciting her if she's not in an environment where she could find out about the fall of the Berlin Wall any minute, and takes her home. To protect her from any possible source of excitement, he resuscitates the DDR within the confines of their flat.
3. DETAILED DISCUSSION
THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS! DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DON'T WANT TO FIND OUT HOW THE FILM ENDS!
Like the Wende ("turn" or "shift"), as the German Reunification is known colloquially, Good Bye Lenin! is a bittersweet story, a story made even more remarkable by the fact that it was written by a West German. In a way, the film can be understood as a response to the dominant climate in the German media and politics, which ignores the fact that the loss of the DDR was, in fact, a real loss in many ways for those who spent their lives there.
Wer nicht hören will, muß fühlen, says an old German proverb: Those who won't hear, must feel. That is exactly what Good Bye Lenin! does. Even those who don't hear when East Germans point out that there are things they miss about the DDR won't be able to miss the feelings of gain and loss that pervade the film. That the story transitions so smoothly between tears at the losses and laughter at the insanity of the situation is a credit both to the strong cast and to Bernd Lichtenberg's script.
The comical elements are probably the most obvious. The German Democratic Republic no longer exists, but the shock might kill Alex' mother, so he must somehow make it seem as if nothing has changed. The problem, of course, is that everything has changed. When she first arrives home, Christiane wants Spreewald pickles, but they, along with Mocca Fix coffee and practically every other brand name that was part of everyday life in the DDR, have been replaced by goods from the West and points beyond. So, Alex begins a frantic search for any remaining jars containing his mother's favourite pickles, and, failing that, jars that at least had the right label on them. While digging through a nearby dumpster to find an empty jar, Herr Ganske, the Kerners' upstairs neighbour, sees him, and assumes that he's digging through the dumpster for sustenance. "So weit ham' sie uns schon! Daß wir im Müll rumfischen." (So that's what we've been reduced to fishing in dumpsters!)
As if that weren't enough, signs of the Wende begin impinging even upon the view from Christiane's bedroom window. As Alex tries to hold a traditional birthday celebration for Christiane with neighbours and colleagues from her school, a gigantic Coca-Cola banner is unfurled on a nearby high-rise. At a loss for a plausible distortion, he and his friend (and amateur director and video editor) Denis come up with a way to attribute the explanation to a source that makes plausibility irrelevant: they cut together an issue of the DDR TV news series Aktuelle Kamera.
As more and more things need explaining, Alex and Denis edit together more and more episodes of Aktuelle Kamera. The more they do to keep up the pretense, the more Alex moves from keeping things as they were to creating a complete alternate history, a history in which the DDR is vindicated in its attempts to claim rights to the original flavour of Coca-Cola, in which West Germans are flocking to take refuge in the East. As Alex notes in his voice over narration:
"Irgendwie muß ich zugeben, daß sich mein Spiel verselbständigte. Die DDR, die ich für meine Mutter schuf, wurde immer mehr die DDR, die ich mir vielleicht gewünscht hätte.
Somehow, I have to admit that my story was taking on a life of its own. The DDR that I created for my mother, became more and more the DDR that I might have wanted for myself.
This sentiment likely finds a great deal of resonance in the audience, for the East Germany that Alex creates for his mother is an East Germany that people actually want to live in, an East Germany that people could be proud of. And that further amplifies the tragic aspect of the story. From the beginning, we see the loss of jobs, of livelihoods, of stability, of social connectedness, but, as Alex' story takes on more and more of a life of its own, we also see the loss of a potential, the loss of a DDR that could have been and, in 1989-1990, almost was , the loss of the chance to actually create the DDR that people would have wished for.
Nothing more exemplifies this feeling of loss than the final Aktuelle Kamera that Alex and Denis edit in order to give the DDR a dignified farewell as Christiane spends her last days in the hospital. In it, Erich Honecker goes into retirement, stating that the political changes achieved (i.e. invented by Alex and Denis) over the past year are a worthy conclusion to his life's work, and cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn, the first German in space, is named as his successor. Alex and Denis recruit a taxi driver who bears a striking resemblance to Jähn to deliver a televised address, with the East German National Hymn playing in the background, which is worth being quoted in full:
Liebe Bürgerinnen, liebe Bürger der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik. Wenn man einmal das Wunder erlebt hat, unseren blauen Planeten aus der Ferne des Kosmos zu betrachten, sieht man die Dinge anders.
Dort oben in den Weiten des Weltalls kommt einem das Leben der Menschen klein und unbedeutend vor. Man fragt sich, was die Menschheit erreicht hat, welche Ziele hat sie sich gestellt und welche hat sie verwirklicht. Unser Land hat heute Geburtstag.
Aus dem Kosmos gesehen ist es ein sehr kleines Land und doch sind im letzten Jahr Tausende Menschen zu uns gekommen. Menschen, die wir früher als Feinde gesehen haben und die heute hier mit uns leben wollen. Wir wissen, dass unser Land nicht perfekt ist. Aber das, woran wir glauben, begeisterte immer wieder viele Menschen aus aller Welt. Vielleicht haben wir unsere Ziele manchmal aus den Augen verloren, doch wir haben uns besonnen. Sozialismus, das heißt nicht, sich einzumauern. Sozialismus, das heißt auf den anderen zuzugehen, mit dem anderen zu leben. Nicht nur von einer besseren Welt zu träumen, sondern sie wahr zu machen. Ich habe mich daher dazu entschlossen, die Grenzen der DDR zu öffnen.
Dear Citizens of the German Democratic Republic. When you've experienced the miracle of seeing our blue planet from the depths of the cosmos, you see things differently.
Up there, in the depths of space, the life of the people on earth seems small and insignificant. You ask yourself what humanity has achieved, what goals it has set and which goals it has reached. Today, our land celebrates its birthday.
Looking down from the cosmos, it is a very small country; yet, in the past year, thousands of people have come to us. People that we once saw as enemies and who today want to live here with us. We know that our country isn't perfect. But the things we believe in have, time and time again, inspired many people throughout the world. We may sometimes have lost sight of our goals, but we have come to our senses. Socialism doesn't mean walling ourselves in. Socialism means approaching others, living with others. Not just dreaming of a better world, but making it a reality. Therefore, I have decided to open the borders of the DDR.
And thus the film ends, with the history invented by Alex & Co. dovetailing ultimately with the actual course of events. The end captures perfectly the poignancy that is so often lost in the conventional images of the Berlin Wall opening. I cannot recommend this film enough.