Good Bye Lenin!
directed by Wolfgang Becker
(Sony, 2003)

Waking up from an eight-month coma can be disorienting enough. But if the entire world you've always known, always struggled to uphold, has collapsed while you slept -- what then?

For Alex Kerner, a young man living in 1989 East Germany, there can be only one solution that will protect his fragile mother as she emerges from her coma: She cannot be told that East Germany, where she has always lived, which has honored her for devotion, has fallen.

The shock, it's feared, will kill her.

Good Bye Lenin! is the result, a German film that blends political upheaval and personal tragedy in a way that doesn't gloss over the politics or make the personal side maudlin.

In fact, it turns to humor as a way to examine both the gray life of the Eastern Bloc as well as the crass commercialism and overwhelming sparkle of West Germany. Stuck in the middle to muddle on their own are people like the Kerners.

The mother knows nothing of the Berlin Wall's collapse. But her family isn't much better off, ill-prepared in many ways for the onslaught of stockpiles in supermarkets; the obsolesence of the Trabant, that great East German auto; the overnight rise of franchises like Burger King.

To protect his mother (Kathrin Sass), Alex (Daniel Bruhl) and, to a lesser extent, his sister Ariane, her boyfriend, Rainer, and Alex's Russian nurse girlfriend, Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), must fully reconstruct the German Democratic Republic in miniature.

It won't be easy. In addition to pulling all their East German furniture back in from the sidewalk where it's been dumped in favor of new stuff, there's a Trabant they must locate and buy, not to mention kids who must be bribed to sing the songs of East Germany's Young Pioneers.

But it's the lengths to which Alex and his friend Denis (Florian Lukas) go to create fake newscasts so Alex's mother can watch television that bring most of the film's situational humor to the fore.

And it's always a humor that's punctured by the mother's real fragility, and the reality of living in a family where the father moved years ago to the West.

In several scenes, Alex sits at a table, carefully pouring pickles and juice and jams that's he's bought in the sparkling groceries of a united Germany into scavenged bottles from the old days: East German pickles, East German juices and jams.

It's a gesture that's both ludicrous and touching, and it goes a long way to explaining the enormous popularity Good Bye, Lenin! has had, in Germany and elsewhere.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 5 February 2005

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