My knowledge of German cinema is shamefully slack – something I am forced to question every time I see yet another great German movie. Good Bye Lenin! (2003) is one such movie. A German friend put me onto it, having bent my ear about how great it was, and as a result of her Teutonic persistence, I caved in and bought a copy. It’s a story about family, a story about people’s attitudes and a story about love and respect. It’s also – by turns – funny, dramatic and engaging.
The story is gently reminiscent of the humour shared between the Germans and the English. Neither party would probably admit to that, but it’s there. Good Bye Lenin! (2003) is, in parts, a great example of the classic British farce. The situation in which the central characters find themselves is ridiculous, chaotic and strangely still believable if you’re prepared to compromise a little.
It’s 1989 and Christiana Kerner (as delicately played by Katrin Saβ) is a minor party official working in the old East Germany. Her husband left her ten years ago, leaving her to bring up her two children alone. Worse yet, he dumped her in the most embarrasing and difficult way possible – defecting to the West with a capitalist floozy, leaving Christiana to face rejection by her peers and some rather interesting chats with the Stasi. Her son (Alex, played by Daniel Brühl) is the eldest of the children, and is something of a rebel, getting involved in protests against the incumbent government in the events that will leads to the taking down of the wall.
Christiana spent quite some time in and out of mental hospitals follwing her husband’s defection and we rejoin her life story just before the main thrust of the film, when yet another tragedy is about to happen. As she is walking home one evening, she sees a protest rally and the police intervening to break it up. She watches in horror as Alex is bundled into a van by the cops and taken away. Too much for her to bear, she collapses with a presumed heart attack and eventually slips into a coma. While in the coma, the world around her undergoes the sea change from communism to caitalism with the tearing down of the Berlin wall – something that would ordinarily come as a surprise to her. Fast forward to June 1990, 7 months after the wall came down. Alex is now dating his mother’s nurse, Russian emigré Lara (Chulpan Khamatova). As they kiss by his mother’s bed, she begins to wake up. The doctors tell them that she must have full bed rest and not be subjected to any shocks. Rather than tell her about the demise of her beloved communist party, Alex, Lara and their best friend Denis (Florian Lukas) set about concocting ever more elaborate schemes to keep her in bed at home and to pretend that everything is still ‘normal’.
So, from a rather bleak premise comes a film that expertly handles being lip-bitingly sad and (for the most part) very, very funny. The sheer lengths that the trio are prepared to go to in order to prevent their game being rumbled are astonishing. There’s the obvious stuff – doctoring the television and radio broadcasts using tapes and trying to explain why a massive Coca-Cola advertising banner has suddenly sprung up, for example. There’s also the mundane, trivial stuff – something that would catch out a bad liar. Mrs Kerner is getting better all the time and suddenly develops a hankering for Spreewald pickled gherkins. Since the introduction of Western ways, the old foods had quickly become unfashionable as retailers flocked to stock up on Coke and Nestlé products. Finding these pickles becomes a running joke throughout.
It’s probably best to try not to analyze this too much, as the analysis essentially kills the comedy. It seems the point is not that communism was all ‘bad’ and capitalism all ‘good’ but they were and are both ridiculous when put under the microscope. If anything, Good Bye Lenin! is all the better for its lack of posture and concentrates on what many film-makers seem to have dropped from their repertoire – a bloody good story. Christiana eventually gets better (that’s not a spoiler, honest) and returns to a life very different from the one she left in her coma. It turns out, however, that she has secrets of her own and that her kids may just be mere amateurs in the lying game.
121 mins. In German.