I reviewed Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye, Lenin! on its original release back in 2003. I had liked it then, and was glad for the excuse to take another look at it. (When you have to watch an average of four movies a week, a lot of things you’d like to see or see again fall by the wayside.) Watching a film again is always an interesting proposition, since it’s often true that things don’t look as good the second time around — though on occasion, they look better. In the case of this odd comedy-drama from Germany, I’d say the latter is true. Its quirky storyline is still a good one: A young East German man (Daniel Bruhl, Ladies in Lavender) is burdened with the task of keeping the news of the reunification of East and West Germany from his ailing, staunch, socialist mother (Katrin Sass) so as not to excite her to another, probably fatal heart attack (she was in a coma from the first attack at the time of reunification). The film’s deft blend of humor and seriousness works nicely. Then too, Becker’s nods to Fellini and Kubrick are little delights.
But overall, the film’s innate sadness seemed more pronounced this round. The theme of rewriting history into what we wish it had been instead of what it really was is extremely poignant, and as is always the case, the passing of an era generates a bittersweet taste, no matter how bitter the reality of that era was. The comedy in the film is sharp and clever, but it’s the serious side you’ll remember afterwards. If you’ve never seen this little gem, it’s certainly worth your time.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke
Original Review: May 19, 2004
Good Bye, Lenin! is advertised as a comedy, and the trailer certainly plays up this aspect of the film. Yet Wolfgang Becker’s often-very-funny movie is finally less a laugh-out-loud slice of humor than it is a human, humane story about the bizarre lengths we’ll go to in order to please and protect someone we care for — and about the ways in which we rewrite history in order to make the past more what we would like it to have been.
If this were a Hollywood product, the idea would be called “high concept”: During the last days of East Berlin’s communist regime, supposedly loyal party member Christiane (Katrin Sass) suffers a heart attack while witnessing the police beat up protestors, and she falls into a coma. While she’s in this state, communism falls and the reunified Germany becomes a hotbed of Western consumerism — largely signified by the influx of Coca-Cola (Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three from 1961 was pretty on-target) and fast food.
When Christiane finally awakens, the doctor tells her son, Alex (Daniel Bruhl), and daughter, Arianne (Maria Simon), that the least shock could bring on a second heart attack and kill her. Thus Alex decides that they will have to make his mother think that the German Democratic Republic still stands, and that nothing has changed. Since she never leaves her room, this shouldn’t be too hard, right? Wrong.
It’s easy enough to duplicate her old bedroom, but problems arise from there. Where does one obtain the state-produced brands of groceries Christiane expects to find? What does one do about the news once she wants to watch TV? And what will happen if she ever wanders outside? These and a myriad of other similar problems are constantly cropping up, and the solutions that Becker’s script provides for them are sometimes clever, sometimes insane and yet always believable within the confines of the story.
What some people may find less believable is the idea that anyone would really wax nostalgic about the communist years in Germany. But is that really so far-fetched? People dislike change — even for the better. And when one has poured a lifetime of effort into something, it would be hard not to feel resistance to developments that make all that seem meaningless. In Christiane’s case, she sublimated her personal life (a failed marriage) toward working for the state as a teacher. What else would she feel except profound disillusionment to find that the state as she knew it no longer exists?
That’s reasonable on the face of it. Yet Good Bye, Lenin! is finally much more complex than that reading, which is not actually from Christiane’s point of view, but from that of Alex. The reality of the situation is somewhat different — something the film hints at early on with the incident that brings on her heart attack (about which Alex doesn’t know). As the film progresses, that clue is slowly built upon until a much more complex picture emerges — one that finally turns around and asks the question, “Who’s humoring whom?” Saying more than that would be unfair to anyone who hasn’t seen Good Bye, Lenin!. Discovering the complexities of what’s going on with these characters is part of the film’s joy, as is watching what they — especially Alex — are discovering about themselves along the way.
Writer/director Becker has a scant, spotty filmography, and I at least have never seen anything else he’s made. Still, it’s obvious from this film that he’s heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick and Federico Fellini. The former is actually mentioned in the film, and Becker recreates his own version of the fast-motion “William Tell Overture” scene from A Clockwork Orange (and also names his main character Alex, as in that film). And one of the most striking scenes in Good Bye, Lenin! — a fantastic moment where Christiane is confronted by a gigantic statue of Lenin that seems to beckon to her as it’s being carted away via helicopter — duplicates the opening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, with its Christ statue flying over Rome in the same manner.
But these are not just random salutes, especially the Lenin sequence, since in a very real sense Christiane’s “god” is being taken from her — and, as the film suggests, maybe she would like to follow. Becker’s sense of cinema serves him well and helps to make what could have been a one-joke story into something rich and compelling. At two full hours, Good Bye, Lenin! might slightly overstay its welcome, but it’s one of the few things playing right now that really stays with you after the fact.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke