Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)

Dir. Wolfgang Becker. Starring Daniel Bruhl, Katrin Saß, Maria Simon

After her husband escapes to the west, a single mother of two, Christiane Kerner (Saß), becomes deeply involved in East German politics. The government is grateful. Such people are common enough in any nation: they devote themselves at a local level and become symbols at a national one. Her children, Alex (Daniel “Nation’s Pride” Bruhl) and Ariane (Simon) seem more or less immune to their mother’s sozialistischen Eifer. After the Berlin Wall goes down, Ariane gets a job at Burger King; before the Berlin Wall goes down, Alex is participating a tad somnambulistically in a protest for a free press. His mother sees him. She has a heart attack. The police, a little more wound up about maintaining order than in administering CPR, leave her. She slips (as Stephen King notes, one always slips) into a coma. She’s out for eight months. In the meantime, the Berlin Wall falls, West Germany wins the 1990 World Cup, and steps are taken to German reunification.

This is where the screwball elements of the plot come in, and it’s a killer idea; it’s the high-concept part of the plot that I think draws people to see this picture. Christiane wakes up, and Alex and Ariane learn that in her fragile state, any shock might kill her. Alex has felt personally responsible for his mother since he was a child and his father left, and of course giving one’s mother a heart attack doesn’t reduce one’s feeling of responsibility; he wants to bring her home and take care of her there. Ariane is dubious; between her daughter, live-in West German boyfriend, Rainer (Alexander Beyer), her job at an icon of Western decadence – and most importantly, her strong preference for a Westernized Berlin – she doubts it can be done. Alex, recognizing that his mother will probably have a relapse in 48 hours if he leaves her in the hospital buzzing about the fall of the Berlin Wall, takes charge. After being unable to fudge an explanation to his mother about what caused the heart attack (he tells Christiane she passed out from the heat waiting in line – in October – it was an unusually hot October?), he becomes Mr. Deception.

Some of the changes are relatively small potatoes. Alex has to put his mother’s room together the way it had been before her heart attack. He’s installing satellite dishes in the Brave New Berlin and teams up with his partner, aspiring filmmaker Denis (Florian Lukas) to collect East German news reports to show his mother when she wants television. (Watching Denis judge his potential to become the German Kubrick based on the fake news reports he and Alex make is one of my favorite running gags in the film.) Alex famously runs around Berlin looking for Vita Cola, Mocca Fix Gold, and especially Spreewald pickles and finds out that they’ve been replaced by Coke, Folgers, and some ubiquitous Dutch gherkins. Wearing the weird uniforms of East Germans rather than the fashion-forward Western clothes of the ’90s is a chore, especially for Ariane.

But other changes evidence one of the key themes of the film, one rather more important to making it work than the goofy “We can’t let Mom know the Cold War is ending” bit. Alex and his mother have the same talent – and gusto – for deception. Good Bye, Lenin! is a story, first and foremost, about a mother and son rediscovering each other. Their relationship is hampered by the decay of the German Democratic Republic; an early scene features his mother dictating one of her million scything letters on a trivial topic while Alex rolls his eyes. But in helping his mother recover, Alex becomes obsessive with the East Germany he grew up in, that he presumably sees in his dying mother. His girlfriend Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), whom he fell for while she was nursing his mother at the hospital, begins to see the relationship between her boyfriend and her ex-patient as abundantly creepy. Alex organizes a birthday party for his mother which includes all of her GDR friends and a pair of his mother’s “students,” who are in fact recruited by Alex to pose as whatever East German Cub Scouts used to be called. Rainer is given a background story. Alex and Denis make news reports to explain away a Coca-Cola banner visible from Christiane’s window and, more importantly, to explain away the Westernization of East Berlin that Christiane sees when she escapes from her sickroom one afternoon. Coke was actually a socialist invention stolen by the West; the West Berliners are actually breaking down the Wall to come to East Berlin, and they are graciously being granted asylum.

The second-most stark implication that Alex is his mother’s son comes when he is trying to exchange his mother’s stash of recently discovered East German Marks for Deustche Marks two days after the deadline. He is refused at the window by the bank manager; not only has the deadline passed, they never would have accepted all of that cash anyway. Alex makes a scene. He shouts at the other customers, “This used to be your money, too!” He is removed from the bank by security. Finding Spreewald pickles and making East German news footage has awakened some Ostalgie in Alex, and watching him all but call for the renovation of the Berlin Wall in public after watching him march for a freer East Germany an hour before is striking.

There’s a very strong current of escapism in the film, beginning with Alex’s hero worship as a child of the cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn, an East German who was the first German in space. Alex and Ariane’s father’s escape to West Germany kicks off the plot in earnest. Lara is not a German, but a Soviet; surely something made her want to leave home, and there are hints that her family was involved in some small tragedy. Ariane, between commercialism, Burger King, and Rainer, takes to Western culture with a will. Alex is dissatisfied with East Germany while it held sway. And Christiane spends a significant portion of the film trying to convince Alex to let her leave her sickroom for outings which, as her self-appointed warden, he refuses to do. When she does escape that room, she sees a statue of Lenin being carried away via helicopter. She returns to bed; Jähn returns to Earth; Alex and Ariane have to become East Germans at home to keep their mother alive. Good Bye, Lenin! seems to understand that as much as people want to get out of their situations, they are bound to them as well. It’s harder to leave and stay gone than anyone would expect.

The starkest implication that Alex is his mother’s son is at once the strongest and weakest element of the picture. We discover that Robert Kerner (Burghart Klaußner) didn’t do a bunk when he went to West Berlin; his escape was planned, and Christiane was supposed to follow with her children. Fearing that she would be caught and her children taken from her, Christiane got cold feet. She stayed in East Germany. To maintain the story that their father abandoned them, Christiane hid, unopened, the letters that he wrote the family. This kicks off a short subplot which could have been a movie unto itself, where Ariane – who spotted him in a car with his two new kids in the drive-thru at Burger King – tears the apartment apart searching for his letters, and Alex actually seeks out his father and visits him at home. Robert has another boy and girl, much younger than Alex and Ariane, but obviously the West German shadow versions. The parallelism is a little neat for me, and the revelation that Robert has spent years missing his family feels sprung. In the context of the film, though, this soapish turn is forgivable. Against the advice of his sister and his girlfriend, Alex has led the charge for a big lie that lasts for months and causes as much hurt and mistrust among the principals as anything else. Now we see where he gets it.

In that way, it is fitting that the film comes full circle. Lara, disgusted by the series of lies enveloping the Kerners, tells Christiane (who is back in the hospital on the eve of German reunification) the truth about the eight months prior. Alex, who has no idea that Lara has gone behind his back, is in the midst of creating his masterpiece. He and Denis film a story about the reunification of Germany under the leadership of, who else, Sigmund Jähn. (“The cosmonaut?” Christiane asks.) Alex writes a paean to socialism, which was never supposed to be about walls, which is an avenue for people who don’t want to be ruled by commercialism. His last telecast with Denis is their best one, and he is sure that his mother has been fooled. Christiane’s commentary during the “news report” plays along gamely. Her expression is not quite inscrutable, but discerning it precisely is difficult. Is she impressed with her son’s devotion? Or does she feel the emptiness she shelled out to her kids reciprocated a decade later? The intention was, of course, never to improve anyone’s situation. Christiane and Alex have simply been keeping each other alive.

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