Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Die Liebe eines Sohnes

Film: Good Bye, Lenin!
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

One of the great things about the movies is that they are a tremendous opportunity to play make believe. With a good premise you can get away with almost anything. Good Bye, Lenin! is that sort of a film, one that banks on an unbeatable idea for a story and then plays it out by sticking to it as closely as it possibly can. I love it when a film buys into its premise so completely.

In the late 1970s, the father of a family in East Berlin vanishes to the West on the day that the first German launches into space. His wife, Christiane (Katrin Sass), throws herself into becoming the very best citizen of East Germany that she can. In 1990, as the times are changing, she witnesses her son involved in a protest. As her boy Alex (Daniel Bruhl) is tossed into a police van, she collapses. This near-fatal heart attack leaves her in a coma for months.

As it turns out, she misses some important months. Specifically, she misses the beginnings of the reunification of East and West Germany. The West invades what used to be East Berlin. Christiane’s daughter Ariane (Maria Simon) quits college, gets a job at a Burger King, and has her new boyfriend Rainer (Alexander Beyer) move in to the family apartment. Alex loses his job in a television repair shop, but gets a new one installing satellite dishes around the city. He also starts a relationship with Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), who happens to be Christiane’s nurse.

And then Christiane wakes up. Alex and Ariane are told that any additional shocks will likely kill her, because she will not survive another heart attack. Desperate to protect his mother as much as he can, Alex recreates his mother’s room and brings her home from the hospital. He monitors everything, rigging a television to a VCR so that she can only watch videotapes of old broadcasts. He tells everyone who visits to maintain the fiction that the reunification has happened. When a Coca-Cola banner goes up on the building across the street, he and his work friend Denis (Florian Lukas) fake a news report and play it for her to explain it away.

It’s desperately sweet and sad and beautiful. It’s also filled with some tremendous imagery, like Christiane wandering outside the apartment at one point and being confronted with a helicopter carrying off a statue of Lenin with one hand outstretched. It’s also desperately funny. After the statue moment, Denis and Alex rig another fake broadcast. Denis, wearing a fake mustache and no pants under the desk, presents the fable that the situation is so bad in West Germany that East Berlin has opened its gates to anyone willing to come.

Of course it can’t last, and it doesn’t, but it’s a fantastic ride getting there. It does strain the limits of believability. Alex’s scheme is sweet and tragic, and because of it, something beautiful to watch. The ending is perhaps inevitable as well, but is also pitch perfect.

It’s also far more complicated and involved than I’ve let on here. A great deal happens with the reunification; in particular, it means that Alex’s and Ariane’s father is now a part of their lives. Eventually, it comes out from Christiane that he didn’t run away from the family to be with another woman, but to lead the way for all of them to escape to the West. When suspicion came down, Christiane decided to stay with the children to protect them. This, like much of the rest of the film, is beautiful and tragic as well.

Were parts of the film not so terribly serious, Good Bye, Lenin! would be the modern equivalent of a screwball comedy. In parts, it is. Alex’s desperate search for an empty jar of East Germany pickles he can use to pretend that the old brand is still available, for instance, takes on a life of its own through much of the film. It’s a common refrain that he garbage picks for empty containers to maintain the fiction of old products and is frequently interrupted by a disgruntled neighbor who is frustrated at being suddenly out of work and forced to pick through the trash himself.

It’s worth saying here that I was in Berlin in October of 1990, exactly one week after the official reunification of the two sides. It was a fascinating time to be there. It was also a happy time for just about everyone we met.

Good Bye, Lenin! is a special film, and a nearly perfect blend of comedy and drama, and most importantly, a deep love of a son for his mother. This is another film I’m happy was on The List, because I’m extremely pleased to have seen it.

Why to watch Good Bye, Lenin!: One of the best premises you’ll ever encounter.
Why not to watch: It strains believability.


  1. "Alex’s scheme is sweet and tragic, and because of it, something beautiful to watch."

    Very well said and I agree completely. I'm glad you liked this film a lot. I did, too.

    I had to laugh when you reminded me about the "news story" of East Berlin throwing its gates open to the West Berliners who are clamoring to get in. I had forgotten that joke.

    1. I think the comedy in this works so well because it's always tinged with desperation and tragedy. That news story is tremendously fun.

  2. This is a lovely little film, isn't it? I wrote about how this is one of my favorite cinematic mother-son relationships. It's a fairly warped relationship, but it's never vulgar. It's sweet, but sad, like you said. Alex just really loves his mom, and it takes him to some weird places. The performances of both Sass and Bruhl were terrific, and as you point out, it's good that there are serious parts alongside the humor. The pickles gag was great.

    Now I want to watch this movie again. Yeah, I really liked this one too.

    1. It really is very sweet, and I think that's what I like about it. If it had gotten vulgar or too campy, it would have ruined what was here.

  3. Does the film work on the same level if viewed by someone who only has a very basic knowledge of that history (Berlin Wall, Lenin, etc.)? And by very basic, I mean "Lenin was bad, and the wall eventually came down."

    1. Hard to say, but I think so. There's enough exposition to follow along.

  4. I make fun of German Cinema a lot, but sometimes I see something that is really good without any of the national qualities that make German movies so much fun to make fun of. And I had really good luck with German Cinema this week!

    A few days ago, I came across Fraulein Else (1929) on YouTube, a late silent film with the wonderful Elisabeth Bergner as a young woman who has to cope with compromising her virtue in order to save her father from financial ruin after a stock market crash. It's unlike any German film I've seen from the era, but I'm recommending it for film buffs who have a high tolerance for silent movies and like unique cinema experiences.

    And last night, I watched Good Bye Lenin, another great film, another unique cinema experience. It was certainly fun to see Daniel Bruhl from Inglourious Basterds in a role where he's not massacring Allied troops from a bell tower and beating up the heroine.

    1. It's a unique perspective, and that's probably what I like the most about it.

      For the record, I seem to be a big fan of German film. I'm trying really hard to think of a German film I've seen that I haven't at least liked a little or respected, and I can't think of one off the top of my head. That doesn't mean they don't exist, but that I can't come across one from memory.