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22.6.06

DVD: Good Bye, Lenin!

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Wolfgang Becker, 79 qm DDR [Good Bye, Lenin!], Daniel Brühl, Katrin Saß, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon (released on August 10, 2004)
I had heard a lot about this movie, several people recommended it to me, and it did not disappoint. The story is an exercise in nostalgia, the object of which is something you might not expect, life in communist East Germany. Alex (Daniel Brühl) is the son of a music teacher in East Berlin, who was a dedicated member of the Communist Party, especially after her husband has left for a new life in the West. Unhappy with life under the communist regime, Alex takes part in the pro-democracy demonstrations, where his mother, whose mental and physical health have always been fragile, sees him being arrested. She collapses in the street and falls into a coma, during which occur the famous events of 1990, the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the move toward German reunification. When she wakes up months later, the doctor advises Alex to help his mother avoid all shock which might cause a relapse.

Alex and his sister move their mother back to their apartment building, where Alex sets out to create an envelope of illusion around her, an elaborate ruse to make her believe that they are still living in East Germany. He gets some of the party old-timers and former students to come to her bedroom and sing communist anthems on her birthday. He hunts around garbage dumpsters and other places to find the brands of food that they used to eat (putting the new imported pickles in the old pickle jars, for example) and everyone who sees her has to wear their old East German clothes, not the Western clothes that flood the stores after the Wall comes down.

Fake East German news telecast, Good Bye, Lenin!In some of the most charming and funny sequences, Alex and his friend make fake news television broadcasts (shown at right), even recruiting a former East German cosmonaut to perform in them. They show them to Alex's mother on the television, at first to maintain the ruse that East Germany is still a communist country but eventually to bring her up to date on the country's actual existence outside the sheltered apartment.

Not having had the chance to travel to eastern Germany or the Soviet bloc countries before the fall of the Iron Curtain, I enjoyed being immersed in the world of East Berlin, in a fictional film and then in a fiction within a fictional film. Director Wolfgang Becker shows us the good and the bad, and that there were both in East Germany. Indeed, as the decadence of Western "culture" blasts through the ruins of the Berlin Wall, it quickly becomes easy to understand what Alex's mother actually liked about East Germany and why even young and rebellious Alex comes to be at least somewhat nostalgic for the past.

The performances are all well done, with exceptional work from Daniel Brühl as Alex and especially Katrin Saß, who is brilliant, rigid, yet fragile as the mother. The character -- intellectual, demanding, virtuous -- reminds me somewhat of Elaine Miller, the mother in Almost Famous, played so admirably by Frances McDormand ("Now go do your best. 'Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.' Goethe said that. It's not too late for you to be a person of substance. Get my son home safely, I'm glad we spoke"). The cinematography is not lavish, but the creative team went to some lengths to recreate the East Germany -- the clothes, the party celebrations, the repressive secret police -- of the late 1980s. The music by the Breton composer Yann Tiersen is very similar, in places identical, to his score of Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain. This movie is worth adding to your Neflix queue.

2 comments:

Stefan said...

For me as a German this movie has a very special importance and I'm glad that it is attended in the U.S. as well.
In German cinemas this movie was a great success, both in the West and the East of the country. I really like it, although I've never been to the communist East Germany during its existence. The movie covers the topic in a very humorous way but without beeing "sappy".

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks, Stefan. I agree about the tone of the movie. It has a certain sweetness but is never saccharine. Thanks for reading!