Good bye, Lenin!

Highly enjoyable German unification culture clash comedy drama.

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 28 Jul 2003 by Scott Morris
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Alex Kerner(Daniel Br?hl) is a young lad in East Germany and he's not terribly happy with it. His mother Christiane (Katrin Sa?) wouldn't like such talk, having thrown herself into the communist ethos after her husband defects to the West, leaving her in a state of clinical depression that rendered her mute for weeks before snapping out of it thanks to a young Alex's devotion. Quite what Alex's sister Ariane (Maria Simon) makes of this isn't really discussed, but she's far more interested in the practicalities of raising her baby daughter as a single mother.

By a chance coincidence, Christiane witnesses Alex's participation in a protest march and doesn't take the shock too well. In fact, she has a heart attack and then lapses into a nice relaxing coma. While she sleeps, the world moves on and the Wall falls down. In what seems to be a shockingly speedy transformation, the old East Berlin becomes infiltrated by the common symbols of the Western world, namely Coca-Cola and Burger King. Ariane quits her studies into economics in favour of actually having some money, by working for aforementioned lip 'n' hoof vendors. There she meets a new boyfriend, Rainer (Alexander Beyer) who fairly quickly moves in.

Alex looses his job as a T.V. repairman only to get a new one flogging and installing satellite dishes, one that can keep him remarkably busy with the rapidly approaching 1990 World Cup and the associated first united German team hysteria. Their apartment grows more westernised with modern furniture and imported foodstuffs. He falls in love with a Russian nurse at his mother's hospital, Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) and she soon feels likewise. Life seems to settle into a normal routine until one day, Christiane wakes up.

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Warned that any in her physical state any shocks could trigger another heart attack, Alex decides the only way to shield his mother from any loose lips sinking her ships and telling of the unification of the two German nations, certainly a shocking event, is to transport her back to their home and create a facsimile DDR in her bedroom. She remains bedbound, so Alex reckons he can pull this off with the help of Ariane. What follows is a near Herculean struggle as Alex has to find old jars to transport the modern food into, go back to some distinctly goofy communist fashion clothes and even enlists workmate Denis' (Florian Lukas) help in digging out old news broadcasts.

Things are stretched to ludicrous extremes trying to hide the truth from Christiane, straining relationships with both his sister and his girlfriend, both of whom think it time to call and end to this ridiculous charade. It's certainly ridiculous, but it's also hugely entertaining and very funny, his explanation for the huge Coca-Cola banner being unfurled from the block of flats in direct view of his mothers' bed a high point.

It's strange to think that despite the inherently ridiculous and unbelievable concept used in the film, it always feels entirely plausible. The actors do a superb job all round, ensuring that everyone feels like a real person, acting in reasonable ways given the bizarre circumstances. By having these solid foundations in place from the outset, director / writer Wolfgang Becker (Side note: the name Wolfgang rocks) can build up to a slightly daft premise without it degenerating entirely into a farce.

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This is an important point because Good bye, Lenin! is as much a drama as a comedy. The characters are all so well realised that it's difficult not to feel some empathy with them once the cracks in their schemes appear and tempers begin to fray. The turmoil caused by Alex's father's reappearance and that caused by his mother's condition is on occasion touching and certainly never less than utterly believable.

While politics isn't actually the main thrust of the film, taking a back seat compared to Alex & co's recreationist antics and interpersonal relationships, it's also a very enthralling, unconventional look at one of the most iconic events of the last century, and I'd imagine the defining event for any German living through it. It succeeds largely because of it's balanced view of life under both societies, showing enough good and bad points of both cultures to avoid what would be a rose-tinted nostalgic view of socialism or a ranting diatribe against capitalism.

Alex hits all the right points in his fanciful re-imagining of unification to his mother, capitalism does place far too much importance on material goods while at the same time taking pains to point out that socialism wasn't exactly a walk in the park, unless it was a particularly bleak, miserable park.

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Of course, the best people to judge this movie are Germans, where a quick glance at the German IMDB user comments would suggest this has been fairly divisive depending on your personal politics. Outside it's borders it's almost universally well received and with good reason I think. It slows down substantially towards the end, losing it's comedic elements which I suppose ought to heighten the drama but it does make the last quarter of an hour a bit of a chore to watch. To be fair, it's only because I wasn't expecting such a sudden change in tone and it's distracting enough to take the shine off an otherwise polished movie.

I have few complaints or criticisms this film. My only major stroke against it (apart from the pacing towards the end) is so trivial I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but I just don't like hearing German. I find the language harsh and grating on the ears, and something I reckon Klingon was based on. How much of this is the fault of school lessons I don't know. Nonetheless, Good bye, Lenin! remains a worthy film that I'd recommend you partake of.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Wolfgang Becker
Cast list:
Daniel Br?hl (Alexander Kerner)
Katrin Sa? (Christiane Kerner)
Maria Simon (Ariane Kerner)
Chulpan Khamatova (Lara)
Florian Lukas (Denis)
Alexander Beyer (Rainer)