Good bye, Lenin!
Director: Wolfgang Becker. Cast: Daniel Brühl, Katrin Sass, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon, Alexander Beyer, Florian Lukas, Burghart Klaussner, Michael Gwisdeck, Stefan Walz. Screenplay: Bernd Lichtenberg and Wolfgang Becker.

Wolfgang Becker's Good bye, Lenin! is about a nutty, warm-hearted concept that gets totally out of hand, and maybe, in its lesser moments, the same could be said about the movie itself. Then again, in its better moments, and there are many, many more of these, the picture manages to be both sweet-natured and truly moving in a very particular way that hasn't been tried very often. The richest source of emotion in the film is not between the mother and son played by Daniel Brühl and Katrin Sass, though both performers are very good and the bond they create is palpable and believable. The real love story in Good bye, Lenin! is between Old Germany and New Germany, or else East Germany and unified Germany. You'd think this would be a difficult sentiment to put across on film, at least as more than a screenwriter's conceit, but it's actually the most immediate and powerful dimension of the movie and, if I may say so, one of the more captivating love stories of the year so far.

You may have noticed by now that American filmmakers tend to opt for historical montages only when their aim is to engineer a shorthand exposition for some period drama, situating us in a timely context, or else to elaborate, as Oliver Stone does in JFK and Nixon, a conspiratorial universe of secrets and lies that virtually equates history with paranoia. Those are both viable techniques, and I still think JFK and Nixon are redoubtably good films. Still, one of the things that recurrently goes missing from American films is the sense of a living history that real people inhabit, much less an evolving history that we still inhabit. This summer, with the proximate releases of Fahrenheit 9/11, OutFoxed, The Manchurian Candidate, and even, to flatter the director, The Village, there's been much talk of the atypical zeitgeisty-ness of popular movies, harking back to the age of the Parallax Corporation, and Robert Redford as Bob Woodward, and Gene Hackman bugging and being bugged. But note that history still appears as a bogeyman in these movies. The new crop of films, like those of the 1970s, only attain their cultural attunement by being unmitigatedly dark. There is plenty of good reason for this, and yet I am not at all convinced that we'd be seeing any lighter-toned historical pieces if current times were any sunnier than, by any stretch, they are. Were that the case, we'd probably just be watching Vin Diesel blowing stuff up and Meg Ryan falling in love somewhere.

So Good bye, Lenin! is really a distinctive presence in American movie-houses, and it's heartening to see it performing so well at our box-office. (By July 2004, when I finally caught up with the picture in a second-run house, it was still the year's highest grossing foreign-language film.) Becker's movie begins with a long collage of modern German history, documenting the rise of communism in the East, the bifurcation of the nation, the style of life under Soviet-inspired socialism, all those stolid rectangular buildings and public icons and arcane collective petitions and bureaucratic idiosyncrasies. Rendered in a luscious mix of archive footage and new material, required for inserting the film's own cast of characters into the historical flow, this opening sequence is remarkably warm and detailed. Maybe the sheer emotionalism of this prologue is a surprise because, for American audiences, we are so arrogantly un-used to seeing socialism and Eastern-bloc life as anything but a hardship and a disgrace, something which the citizens themselves would gladly have thrown over if they had the good fortune to be as free and enlightened as we. Maybe the sequence was especially moving to me because I spent a few growing-up years in Germany between 1990 and 1992, shortly after the fall of the Wall and during the drama of reunification. My mother, who had lived in Germany twice before in her life, and had an even better sense than I did of its historical evolution, was a wellspring of knowledge and ideas about how the country, the landscape (both natural and urban), the people, and their public spirit had changed over the decades. My parents were forward-thinking enough to take my brother and me to Weimar, East Germany, for Labor Day weekend in 1990, just weeks before it wouldn't be "East Germany" any more; we went back exactly one year later, on the same weekend, and I can't tell you what a drastically different world it was. We hardly recognized it as the same place.

This is all in the manner of personal digression, but that's part of the charm and the gift of Good bye, Lenin!: both the loving care of its assembly and the actual story it tells give you confidence that your own little life is a repository of historical reality, and that our own dreams and fates really are connected to those of the countries we live in—not just in times of dire shame, which is how it feels to be an American citizen right now, but at all times. Watching the early scenes of Good bye, Lenin! is like flipping through someone else's personal photo album, someone with a keen, vital interest in the Bigger Picture and with a warm visual sensibility. This is the kind of movie where you look at, say, a jar of pickles, and realize how intimately the movie has taught you to see that jar as both a tasty treat and a symbol of an entire lifestyle.

The plot of Good bye, Lenin!, which I suppose I should get around to describing, concerns how young Alex (Brühl) tries to give that lifestyle back to his mother, East German pickles and all, when she, a committed and publicly honored socialist, wakes up from a coma having missed the dismantling of Checkpoint Charlie and the advent of corporate capitalism. Worried that her now-feeble heart would never survive the shock of the new national system, Alex is driven to re-create the family apartment as a diorama of East German life—which has got to be an interior decorator's worst nightmare, but in this case, it's a sweet thing to do. Enlisting his sister Ariane, her dim boyfriend, the neighbors, and his mother's former co-workers as conspirators in this out-of-time charade, Alex attacks this project with a vehemence that suggests maybe he, too, is having a little trouble waving goodbye to Lenin. He certainly isn't enthused when Ariane quits college to work at the shiny new Burger King. Or maybe for Alex, who's in the middle of that drift that encompasses one's 20s, when he's drawn to a new girlfriend but unready to commit, when he's learning the private stories of his parents and being surprised at what he finds there, when he doesn't seem grounded in any particular job or calling—maybe taking care of Mom and hyperbolizing her own delicate condition is a great cover for continuing to live at home and stave off the winds of change. Fortunately for us, Alex's convoluted mission also leads to some memorably comic interludes, especially those concerning Alex's techno-geek coworker Denis (Florian Lukas), who relishes his role as engineer of the fake news broadcasts which complete the apartment's pre-1989 bubble. Sometimes these fake broadcasts must hurry to explain away an unforeseen lapse in Alex's faux universe, as when bedridden Mom looks out her window and sees (gah!) a huge Coca-Cola advertisement being unfurled like a proud flag down the side of one of those hideous buildings.

Good bye, Lenin! isn't above congratulating itself for its own cleverness every now and then. Especially during the fake TV broadcasts, we are several times encouraged to pause over Alex's ingenuity, and to watch other characters in close-up as they, too, wear those bland expressions that say, "Goodness, isn't this a witty film? Wasn't that last punchline a hoot?" Becker and screenwriter Bernd Lichtenberg also start to lose their story threads a little when they start herding new characters and a plethora of high-stakes revelations into the last third of the movie. The casual way in which Good bye, Lenin! wears its admirable ambitions is one of this movie's distinguishing graces, so it feels churlish to fault the film for perhaps taking on too much; nevertheless, there are too many folks crowded into the concluding scenes, and since we don't have time to pay attention to all of them, the movie winds up feeling over-stuffed.

Then again, fashioning the story as a communal one, and resiting the Hollywood demarcation of major characters from minor ones, feels itself like a socialist ideology at work, so at least Good bye, Lenin! derives a certain political integrity from opening its heart so widely. And just when you've concluded that the best material in the script was all a little front-loaded, and that the conclusion is feeling a little foregone, the writers show amazing dexterity in how they resolve the central dilemma of Alex's crumbling masquerade and the Mother's growing hunches. Take care, now—what I'm about to say could spoil a good surprise, if you're into that sort of thing—but the screenwriters allow a third, heretofore underdeveloped character to play the key role in telling Alex's mother the truth. Then, even more exquisitely, she dies without ever letting Alex realize that she knows the secret behind the illusions, and what lengths he went to in hiding it, and why. This gesture, both hers and the film's, is gorgeous, ensuring that Good bye, Lenin! isn't just about one woman's delicate condition, but about how she, like the rest of the characters, works in quiet ways to nurture the people she loves, to fill their needs even when they go unsaid or unrealized. The central principle of the story is almost reversed; Alex's mother now prevents the breaking of his heart by allowing him to feel he has succeeded in protecting her. His own heroism becomes, ironically, her own gift to him as well as his to her.

In a film that has refused to portray unified, Western Germany as the absolute savior of the backward, aging East—Becker sees beauty, goodness, and trouble on all sides—the symmetry involved in turning the mother/son pair into yet another reciprocated bond, one of honest values in both directions, works perfectly. Good bye, Lenin! may not be all that original in formal terms and might be a tad overstated in its sardonic voiceovers and narrative development, but the core of this picture is tender, intelligent, and wise. It's a political comedy that reaches you right down in your soul, reminding us without a shred of Benigni-ish moral frivolity that life sure is complicated, but it is also beautiful. B+


Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Foreign-Language Film

Other Awards:
Berlin Film Festival: Blue Angel Prize
European Film Awards: Best Picture; Best Actor (Brühl); Best Screenplay
César Awards (French Oscars): Best European Union Film

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