Goodbye Lenin

7 Jul

Director: Wolfgang Becker (2003)

There are often periods of history that we wish we could forget, or wish had never happened, but what if they did happen, only you didn’t realise it… This abstract line of thought is one which is tackled to perfection by Wolfgang Becker in the German dram-edy (if you will), Goodbye Lenin.

We first meet a young Alex Kerner, engrossed by the images on the television of Sigmund Jahn, the first German in space and also a fellow inhabitant of East Germany – or the German Democratic Republic. Alex (Daniel Bruhl) lives with his sister, Ariane and mother Christiane in East Berlin after his father (allegedly) abandoned them for the West, igniting his mother’s reverent support for the socialist causes of the East in the Socialist Unity Party in their hatred of Gorbochev. However, when she sees Alex arrested during an anti-government protest she suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma.

Sitting vigil beside his mother’s hospital bed, Alex meets the naturally beautiful and carefree student nurse, Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) whom he soon begins to date. While his mother lies in bed, she misses the fall of the Berlin Wall, the arrival of capitalism to East Germany and the dissipation of all that the GDR once stood for. Thank goodness she slept through it all. Only, eight months later, Christiane wakes from her coma. Under strict instructions not to cause her any undue excitement that might cause a second heart attack, Alex and Ariane refuse to keep their mother in the hospital and instead resolve to take her home and re-create East Germany for their socialist mother.

Filmed in Berlin – mainly inside their house, Karl-Marx-Allee, (famous socialist boulevard built by the GRD in the 50s) and Alexanderplatz, the limited locations themselves create a claustrophobia that seems to mimic that same feeling of Christiane’s convalescence while capturing the feel of post-Wall Germany.

Alex’s efforts are heart-warmingly precise and calculated, from redecorating his mother’s room to the Eastern bloc stylings, void of the gaudy Westernisation Ariane has introduced to the house, to relabeling Western food with old labels. The ruse stands up well until Christiane expresses a desire to watch television – a clear problem if they are to keep up the charade that they are still living in East Germany under the SED. A problem which is only exacerbated as the Westernisation they have worked so hard to keep from their mother’s knowledge starts to come to them, with the appearance of a huge Coca-Cola banner on a neighbouring building. Enter Alex’s satellite installation co-worker Denis, handily also an aspiring film director. Providing the film’s wonderfully light hearted comedy moments, Denis films fake TV broadcasts to explain these ‘strange’ events. It is surreal but touching the lengths Alex will go to for his mother but also, I imagine even more surreal for the ‘actors’ in this charade as they play out how they imagine East Germany would be had the Wall not fallen.

One day, Christiane makes her escape from the safety of her time capsule home and meets an abrupt welcome to the ‘real’ world, filled with strangely dressed people and IKEA adverts. Quick thinking Alex takes her home and Denis runs up a speedy news bulletin to explain claiming Western refugees are now allowed into the East to escape the financial problems there – her socialist sympathies kick in and she suggests they take some into their home.

As the cracks in the ploy inevitably widen as his mother recovers, what becomes the real focus of the film is the closeness and importance of the family in the face of change, exemplified through the relationship between Alex and his mother, and also the power of political change on the public and how quickly we risk forgetting how we arrived here.

Daniel Bruhl is excellent as Alex balancing love for his mother and his country alongside his excitement (?) for the progress of his country while Katrin Saß is wonderful as the impassioned yet now gently deflated socialist fighter who wakes up in this drastically changed world.

Goodbye Lenin also offers a unique take on this period of history, providing a subtle ‘what if’ questioning that runs throughout the film that is often overlooked by the cinema once the Wall has fallen. Despite my lack of knowledge surrounding this period in German history, Goodbye Lenin asks you to look beyond the politicised textbooks and towards the social history of the time, something which for Becker is what needs protecting.

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