Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Good Bye, Lenin! (Sony Pictures “Classics,” 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For our “feature” last night Charles and I watched a great movie, one of the best things we’ve seen in quite a while: Good Bye, Lenin! (there are several different punctuations of the title, but that one — “Good Bye” as two words and an exclamation point at the end — is on the cover of this DVD), a 2003 German film directed by Wolfgang Becker and co-written by him and Bernd Lichtenberg. It’s based on one of the most outrageous (in a good way) conceits ever developed for a feature film: Christiane Kerner (Kathrin Sass) is a middle-aged woman living in East Berlin with her two grown children, daughter Ariane (Maria Simon) and son Alex (Daniel Brühl, top-billed). Ever since her husband Robert (Burghart Klaussner) left her and fled to the West with a new girlfriend in tow, she’s responded to her loss by idealizing — “marrying,” in Alex’s narration — the East German socialist state, at once forming a perfect picture of it, listening to its incessant propaganda and believing it all, though not without some sense that all the world wasn’t perfect in her homeland because she would make herself available to friends, neighbors and acquaintances to help them write their petitions to one government bureaucrat or another alleging that they hadn’t been delivered a perk they were promised and pleading to have it.

After a series of vignettes illustrated by home movies showing Alex and Ariane growing up, the main story begins in 1989, when Alex joins a protest march — in keeping with the ironic tone the film maintains throughout, Alex tells us in his narration, “We just wanted to go for a walk … without there being a wall in the way” — and his mom comes by just in time to see him being arrested. She collapses in the street, victim of a sudden heart attack, and Alex pleads with the police arresting him to be let go so he can be with his mother when she clearly needs someone to look after her … to no avail. Christiane spends the next eight months in a coma and during that time, the Berlin Wall is torn down, the East German state votes itself out of existence and the two Germanies arrange what was billed as their “reunification” but which was really a friendly takeover of the East by the West (the combined Germany even adopted the official name of the former West Germany, the Bundesrepublik Deutschland — “Federal Republic of Germany”). When she’s finally ready for release, Christiane’s doctor warns Alex and Ariane that they should try to keep her from being exposed to any sudden shocks, because they could trigger a second heart attack that would likely be fatal — and so Alex launches a mad scheme to keep his mother from ever finding out that her beloved socialist East Germany no longer exists and the united Berlin in the united Germany is becoming a hotbed of capitalism and its handmaidens, consumerism and advertising.

When she demands the East German pickles and the other products with which she’s familiar — and they’ve all been taken off the shelves — Alex either scours for them in abandoned apartments or buys new pickles and puts them in the old jars. This means having to redo their own apartment in East German chic — meaning taken down the cool colored Venetian blinds Ariane and her live-in boyfriend Rainer (Alexander Beyer) have put up and re-installing the ugly state-issue curtains that were there before. When mom demands a TV, Alex and his co-worker Denis (Florian Lukas) — a hot young blond who has ambitions to be a film director — install a TV but hook it up to a VCR so that all Christiane can watch is old East German programs, including news shows. (When Denis asks if Christiane won’t notice that all the news is old, Alex said, “So what? They always showed the same crap anyway.”) When Christiane notices a Coca-Cola banner through an open curtain in her room, Alex and Denis stage a fake news broadcast that claims that an international court has just determined that the Coca-Cola company stole the formula for their drink from an East German beverage factory in Leipzig in the 1950’s — and when the manager of the Coca-Cola plant tries to throw them off the premises, Alex and Denis incorporate the footage into their fake newscast and claim it’s an evil capitalist trying to suppress news coverage of the socialist truth.

The sheer hard work involved in maintaining the deception takes it toll on Alex’s personal life — before the fall of the Wall he was working in a TV repair shop; afterwards it’s closed down and he’s become a satellite TV salesman (and he’s doing a land-office business because Germany is in contention for the World Cup soccer championship — which it won in 1990, an event that Becker and Lichtenberg work into their plot); he’s also dating Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), a Russian exchange-student nurse he met at the hospital when she was one of the people taking care of his mom (and he found out her schedule and set up his own visits to mom’s hospital room to coincide with when she’d be there), and not surprisingly his girlfriend is upset that he’s spending so much time ministering to his mom’s illusions he has little left over for her. What makes Good Bye, Lenin! so good is not only the audacity of the concept but the fact that it is not a hymn to capitalist triumph; Becker and Lichtenberg maintain a multi-sided view of their country’s transition, depicting not only the joys of freedom but also its costs — particularly to the middle-aged and up, who had grown up with a guarantee that the government would keep them working and take care of them, and now find themselves losing their jobs and confronting capitalism’s disinclination to provide safety nets.

The title comes from a shot of a giant public statue of Lenin being lifted off its pedestal by a helicopter and flown away to be disposed of — an interesting inversion of the famous opening shot of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which a giant statue of Jesus is being flown in to a city square — though one imdb.com “trivia” contributor suggested it was also a riff on the last two years of the real Lenin’s life, in which he was ill and Stalin was carefully controlling access to him and keeping him from finding out what was really going on in the country he was supposedly ruling. As the film progresses, Alex realizes that what he’s been constructing is not an account of East Germany as it was, but as he would have wished it to be — a genuinely caring state fulfilling the stated ideals of socialism instead of honoring them more in the breach than the observance (and the fact that this film actually acknowledges that there might still be some socialist ideals worth pursuing marks it as a European product and shows the vast gulf between their perception of the end of the Cold War and the unambiguous capitalist-heroes, socialist-villains, goodbye-Lenin-and-good-riddance one we got fed) — and just when we think Becker and Lichtenberg have written themselves totally into a corner they end the movie in a delightfully ambiguous way in which Alex and Denis fulfill their stated ambition to give the East German state a more respectable send-off than it actually got — and feed Christiane their last fake newscast on her deathbed, not knowing that Lara already broke the real news to her in an earlier scene.

After the film I joked to Charles that even with the library closed on Memorial Day, we had still managed to find ourselves a quirky foreign film to watch on a Monday evening — though Good Bye, Lenin! got more critical acclaim and a wider distribution than most such films have, and it holds up beautifully. Even the casting is impeccable; apparently director Becker originally wanted to cast Florian Lukas as Alex — he would have been too aggressively attractive — and make his co-worker a large part-German, part-Turk; instead, he wisely decided to give Lukas the part of Denis and cast Daniel Brühl, who’s not drop-dead gorgeous but is cute, easy on the eyes and a bit twinkie-ish (and therefore good at projecting the character’s immaturity — he seems to have grown up biologically just a bit more than he has psychologically), as his lead.