Good Bye, Lenin!
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

We don't see many German films in this country. Franka Potente's unforgettable copper-red mane in Run Lola Run, of course… what else? Nowhere in Africa, one of those Oscar foreign-film winners that everybody agreed was an important film and no one saw. In the absence of films, we tend to fall on ethnic stereotypes of Germans as solid humorless types. But playful pieces such as Men… and Mostly Martha occasionally slip through. Now we have Good Bye, Lenin!, which is what I call a perfect little political family comedy of the kind we'll never see in this country — and that's just one of the reasons to see it.

A bare-bone description of Good Bye, Lenin! makes it sound like a sitcom: a month before the Fall of the Wall, Frau Kerner (Katrin Sass), a True Believer in German Socialism, has a heart attack and falls into a coma. By the time she comes out, the Communist state is gone, but her loving son Alex (Daniel Bruhl), afraid the shock of the present will cause her another heart attack, sets about to organize her life as if nothing had happened — from moving back in the old cardboard furniture to racing through the city to uncover the old brands of East German foods that no store carries any more. (A delicious joke on Socialist shortages, when average citizens would chase Western products.) It's all quite hilarious, including some insider nudges that will slide past an American viewer — like refilling Mom's bookshelf with Socialist authors such as Anna Seghers. The comic element reaches its apogee when Alex gets his friend (Florian Lukas), a fledgling cineaste, to put together tapes of fake news programs that would convince Mom all is going well in proletarian paradise…

Yes, Alex is getting carried away, as his sister Ariane (Maria Simon) notes — he passionately seeks to re-create Socialism in one little room, and why not? This was his childhood — that the director cleverly recreates in a montage of home movies and East German documentary footage in a voice reminiscent of the narrator from My Life as a Dog, that was the time when he was genuinely happy, cavorting with his family, and even proud, as he watched an East German cosmonaut going to space. Hungarian-made canned peas and East German automotive contraptions, such as the Trabant, were a part of it also — and now he has a consumer's cornucopia and the Wessies (i.e. West Germans) are behaving like an occupation army. In trying to hold on to the past, both for his mother and for himself, Alex is at one with his mother's generation, dejected about their unemployed present and nostalgic about their Socialist past. Recently there was a news item that a whole museum of life under Socialism had opened in an East German town near the Polish border — and it became quite popular. The item contained no reference to the film, but the museum's success is an obvious indication of the Zeitgeist.

Nostalgia alone does not explain why Good Bye, Lenin! became the biggest box-office attraction in Germany last year. After all, the Fall of the Wall has been the subject of other films — some brooding and tragic, such as No Place to Go. But Good Bye, Lenin! is also a deeply felt family film; like many other German families, the Kerners became separated by the Wall, with politics putting an extra spin on family dynamics. With so many jokes, the director Wolfgang Becker is not afraid to go sentimental and does a fantastic job of weaving all the elements — the tears, the laughs, the horror, the euphoria — together in the way only the movies can (which is why we prefer them to reality). We all like to rant about the super-neat feel of Hollywood plotting sometimes, but here we have perfectly timed plotting and writing that would give neatness a good name. I'll dare to give away the two moments that illustrate this director's brilliance (and let's not forget the screenwriter Bernd Lichtenberg, also): early in the film, Stasi agents burst in upon the family because Alex's father defected to the West. At the same time Alex is rapt in front of the TV screen where the first East German cosmonaut is traveling into space aboard the Soviet Soyuz ship. We can see the disconnect in the little boy's eyes. Historical reality is what it is, but it takes an artist to create a moment like this.

My other favorite moment comes late in the film, when Alex's sister Ariane comes home upset. In the bathroom, as he puts a wet napkin to stanch her nosebleed, she tells him she has just seen their father — after a twelve years' absence. She recognized his voice (although he didn't recognize her): "So what did he say?" "Two cheeseburgers, three fries, and two Cokes."

You see, Ariane works at a Burger King drive-through. Her father was just a customer whose voice she recognized without seeing him. In a different context, this would make a great late-night talk-show joke. Here Becker milks the line by not having her father even turn to look at her as he accepts the paper bag (why should he?). All she sees through the hazy rain is two kids' faces in the back seat of a shiny Volvo station wagon.

Good Bye, Lenin! is a good film for pondering history: why are East Germans more nostalgic about their Socialist past than, say, Poles or Hungarians? Is it about East German Socialism (which to us in the West never even pretended to have a human face) or about German national character? The film does not provide the answer, though at the end Alex remarks that the story of East German Socialism was the story of his mother's life, and therefore is not to be mocked. (I'm quoting from memory, but that's the import writ large — the screenplay is not always subtle). But a film that makes you laugh, think, and feel all at the same time makes for a rare trifecta on our screens.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Sony Pictures Classics
Movie Web site: Good Bye, Lenin!



Photos: © 2004 Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.