Good Bye, Lenin!

(2004) *** R
118 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Wolfgang Becker. Cast: Daniel Brühl, Katrin Sass, Maria Simon, Chulpan Khamatova, Florian Lukas.

In Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye, Lenin!, a bit of background propaganda proclaims, "PEOPLE ARE AT THE CENTER OF SOCIALIST SOCIETY," and indeed this farce driven by historic global change makes more than a hill of beans out of the problems of one little family in this crazy world. Alex Kerner, the hero of Good Bye, Lenin!, traces his family's woes back to 1978, when his family loses its father as first German in space Sigmund Jähn makes history. But a turn for the even worse—on October 7, 1989—puts mother Christiane into a coma during the violent crackdown in the streets which marks East Germany's fortieth birthday.

Eight months later, with the Berlin Wall in rubble, another happy reversal of fortune brings with it its own fresh hell. Christiane (Kathrin Sass) awakens, but her condition is so frail that any shock might deliver a death blow. So Alex (Daniel Brühl), his reluctant sister (Maria Simon) in tow, must perpetuate a charade for his staunchly socialist mother: that socialism is alive and well, that the Wall still stands, that Germany is not overrun with capitalism in the form of rumbling Coca-Cola trucks.

Herein lies the farce, as Alex rounds up the increasingly rare "delicacies" his mother craves from the now defunct socialist markets, rewrites history by enlisting his buddy (Florian Lukas) to film and edit fictional old-school newscasts, and goes to any number of other elaborate lengths. Brühl carries off the tender recollections of his narration, the tentative romantic steps which characterize the life Alex barely allows himself, and Alex's complex commitment to his mother, which can be as selfish and deluded as it is admirable.

Alex's tenacious protection of his mother is his own form of personal idealism, a match for Christiane's introspective but unconditional love for East German socialism. But Alex's love, like Christiane's, lives on a thread of denial, and the film's dramatic irony is at its best when it climactically cuts the other way. Though Becker's sense of the absurd is at times carnivalesque (he precociously quotes A Clockwork Orange and Fellini's La Dolce Vita), it is more often tragic as Becker wrests affecting melodrama from the intractable pressures of government on the individual: Christiane, graced with a martyr's name, repeatedly utters, "They've driven us to this."

These cross-generational children of the state find themselves, ultimately, evicted from the nest, but not before a touching family reunion staged around a television, which plays the hugely popular German children's TV program Der Sandmann. The Sandman, of course, tells children to go to sleep, but on this night, the Kerner family has its eyes wide.

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