Good Bye Lenin!

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

GOOD BYE LENIN!

7/10

Germany 2003 : Wolfgang BECKER : 121 mins

More than a decade after reunification, the citizens of Germany are clearly comfortable enough with their einheit to laugh at it: Good Bye Lenin!, which turns the events following the collapse of the Berlin Wall into a mildly satirical tale of family life, has been the biggest domestic hit ever. But, unlike the previous record-holder – western spoof Manitou’s Shoe – this isn’t a comedy of belly-laughs: the few moments when Becker aims for such effects (using cliches like speeding up the film) are the weakest in the movie.

Instead, this is a rather poignant semi-drama whose slightly daft surface masks a strong subcurrent of elegy – indicated by Yann Tiersen’s score, whose mournful tinkly-keyboards themes echo (deliberately?) another tale of mother-child devotion, The Piano. As with the Yugoslav drama Absolute Hundred, Good Bye Lenin! looks back with partial fondness, through the prism of family relationships, to a pre-capitalist era which, though relatively recent, now seems startlingly alien.

In October 1989 – shortly before the Wall’s collapse – loyal socialist-party member Christiane (Katrin Sass) suffers a seizure and lapses into a coma. When she wakes up six months later, the country she so proudly served – East Germany – is effectively no more. But, as her doctors reckon any kind of shock could prove fatal, her twentysomething son Alex (Daniel Bruhl) concocts a wild scheme to shield her from the truth. Along with his sister Ariane (Maria Simon) and best friend Denis (Florian Lukas), Alex arranges things so that, to the bed-ridden Christiane, it appears that the tumultuous political changes of recent months simply didn’t happen.

As a set-up, this is somewhat convoluted and contrived – and becomes increasingly implausible as Alex’s illusions take ever more elaborate forms: video-expert Denis creates fake news broadcasts in which real footage is narrated to suggest the fed-up citizens of the West have smashed down the Wall to seek a happier life in the socialist paradise of the East. But the conceit is handled so wittily and neatly that concerns about plausibility seem fairly irrelevant – and Alex’s actions are underpinned by such convincing affection for his mother that we go along with the most freewheeling absurdities in the script (by Becker and Bernd Lichtenberg).

The reunification he’s mainly concerned with is personal, not political: Alex fulfils his mother’s dying wish by bringing his father (who defected to the West in the 70s) back to her bedside, thus reuniting, however briefly, the fractured family unit. Good Bye Lenin! is, of course, much closer to fairy-tale than any kind of realist document of what actually happened during the final days of the old East Germany – and, like all the best fairytales, it develops in terms of unexpected transformations and reversals. Neatest of all is the climax, in which the ailing Christiane is told the truth by Alex’s girlfriend Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), but pretends to continue believing Alex’s version of the world: the illusionist is allowed to live inside his illusions. On reflection, we realise that the film has always been at least as much about Alex’s adaptation and transition as Christiane’s. The final shot explicitly links his mother and his motherland, indicating that Alex has now reached the point when he can say farewell to both.

Christiane, however, has already reached her accommodation with events – a process which arguably began when, having regained the use of her legs, she makes a solo expedition out of the carefully stage-managed confines of her apartment. In a striking sequence reminiscent of Philip K Dick’s novel Time Out of Joint – in which a hapless layabout suddenly discovers his environment is meticulously-controlled fiction – Christiane makes it out onto the street where she’s startled by the radical changes. In the film’s visual coup de grace, she then sees a huge Lenin statue flying past, suspended from a crane, his arm outstretched: perhaps saluting, perhaps waving goodbye, perhaps beckoning her to follow him into oblivion.

18th August, 2003
(seen 4th August : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : video projection)

by Neil Young