‘Good Bye, Lenin!’ draws on realities – past and present
Living under communist rule required a certain suspension of reality. Citizens in East Germany and the Soviet Union had to simultaneously believe that life under their systems was progressing even as they faced the fact that it was not.
Good comrades put their faith in the strength and wisdom of their regimes, even as the societies around them crumbled. George Orwell had it right in “1984.”
Alex Kerner, the protagonist of director Wolfgang Becker’s “Good Bye, Lenin!” makes exceptional use of that suspension of reality. In juggling various realities – and, in a way, accepting them all at once – Kerner (played by Daniel Brühl) personifies the communist necessity of having hopes and dreams, even as those hopes and dreams are being washed down the drain.
“Good Bye, Lenin!” already a massive hit in Germany, begins in the late ’70s. Alex, a child then, watches as Sigmund Jähn become the first East German to go to outer space and, like many East Germans, reveres the cosmonaut as a symbol of communist pride. What the government commentators don’t mention, of course, is that Jähn is years behind the Western astronauts.
The film then leaps forward a decade, to mid-1989. Alex’s mother Christiane (Kathrin Sass), having been left by her husband, devotes herself to being a good socialist. She teaches party-sanctioned songs to groups of children and petitions the government to make better clothing. Christiane has, in fact, become the embodiment of socialist ideals, and a better comrade than the East German officials.
It being the middle of 1989, East Germany is a country coming apart. While marching in East Berlin to protest the country’s closed borders, Alex is beaten by the police. His mother happens to witness the beating and is doubly mortified – not only is her teenage son being beaten, but he has done something to defy the party. Christiane has a heart attack and drops into a coma.
Eight months pass, and the coma endures. Christiane sleeps as the wall comes down, Germany is united, and capitalism barges into the family’s neighborhood. Christiane awakens into a world that has been turned upside down, everything she believed in having vanished and been renounced.
Knowing that her weak heart couldn’t handle the new reality, Alex dutifully erects a communist façade around his mother. The comic aspect of “Good Bye, Lenin!” kicks in as Alex scours Berlin for the old communist brands of food, outfits the family in dated clothing and, with his friend Denis, concocts fake news broadcasts and passes them off as the real thing for his mother. For an entire summer, Alex keeps East Germany alive for the sake of his mom’s weak heart.
“Good Bye, Lenin!” never shoots for the sky with spectacular revelations or head-turning plot twists. Instead, it gets all the small things – and there are a lot of them – just right. Becker’s film plays sweet, sad and comedic, nostalgic and forward looking. It blends the personal and political to give both a warm look at what a family will do to endure, and a broad picture of a society collapsing to give way to something new.
“Good Bye, Lenin!” is at the Wheeler Opera House today through Friday.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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