Good Bye, Lenin (2003)
Dir. Wolfgang Becker; Daniel Brühl, Katrin Saß, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon
[3 out of 4 stars]
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, not everyone celebrated. Some East German residents clung desperately to the failing political and economic structure of the GDR, wishing that they had been able to succeed in creating a perfect corner of the world. Since the Reunification, the term “Ostalgia” (a portmanteau of “nostalgia” and the German word for “East”) has been used to describe the complex emotions of former GDR residents – a feeling at the very core of Good Bye, Lenin.
Before the Reunification, Alex, played by Daniel Brühl (Inglorious Basterds , Rush ), lives with his mother, Christiane (Katrin Saß) and sister, Ariane (Maria Simon), in a tiny apartment near the Alexanderplatz. Christiane, a firm believer in the Communist regime, composes letters on an old typewriter to the government on practical reforms and Soviet values. Much of our impression of Alex comes through his ironic voiceovers: man-spreading on a park bench with a beer, he informs us that he is “at the height of [his] masculine allure”. Despite his faults, however, there’s something likeable about him, in that he seems to earnestly care for his family. Brühl fulfills this role perfectly: he can somehow instill troubled emotion into an otherwise expressionless face, and his subtly varying degrees of exasperation and eye-rolling embody the essence of a 20-something, meaninglessly drifting and waiting for something to happen to him.
One night, at a protest for freedom of the press, something does happen: Alex gets arrested, and Christiane, who is conveniently driving by in a taxi at precisely that moment, sees him. She watches as the Stasis tackle him to the ground, beating him with riot sticks, and she too falls and has a dangerous heart attack, leaving her in a coma just hours before the Berlin Wall falls.
While Christiane sleeps, East Berlin changes. Thousands of East Germans travel West, never to return. Western influences flood the streets as capitalism’s Coca-Cola and Volkswagens replace the Soviet alternatives. Pop culture and consumerism change overnight, and East Germany simply can’t keep up: local businesses fold, former school teachers become alcoholics, and Ariane gets a job at Burger King. The desire to Westernise even permeates the former Soviet strongholds, as Alex throws out his mother’s dreary old furniture and clothes in favour of bright colours and name-brand items.
Eight months go by, and finally, Christiane wakes up. But Alex and his sister barely have time to embrace before the doctor warns them that “any kind of excitement…would be life-threatening.” Alex realises what he must do, and so he starts to reconstruct a microcosm of “Ostalgia” in his mother’s apartment: old curtains are hung back up, the satellite dish is disconnected, and canned goods are dug up from neighbours’ garbage cans. When Christiane asks if she can watch the nightly news, Alex teams up with his friend Denis (Florian Lukas), an aspiring film-director, to create fake newscasts that explain the events through a pre-Reunification lens. For example, the Coca-Cola sign now visible from her window is explained away by a video showing how the “original” recipe was discovered in an East-German factory.
Alex’s devotion to this project is both touching and disturbing. Alex never leaves his mother, choosing to stay and protect her from a truth he know would be devastating. But as his girlfriend Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) warns him, he has gone too far: as the lie becomes more elaborate, so does his belief in it. Like Lara, we can never entirely side with Alex: we know his intentions are good, but sometimes the deception seems to be more about his own “Ostalgia” than about protecting his mother. As he says in a voiceover: “Somehow my scheme had taken on a life of its own. The GDR I created for her increasingly became the one I might have wished for.”
Good Bye, Lenin leaves us uncertain of how much each character knows. Alex ultimately never reveals to his mother the truth about the Reunification, and thus maintains the deception. But although the film is told largely through his perspective, he is not omniscient: a couple scenes reveal that there is more at play than he is aware of. In the most important of these, Lara secretly explains everything – the Reunification, the deception, etc – to Christiane, and since Alex never realises this, we are left wondering if it is actually Christiane who is protecting him.
At first glance, Good Bye, Lenin is merely a comedic coming-of-age story set during a politically-wrought time. It’s also been interpreted as a meditation on self-deception. But these views overlook the complexity of the film and its tragicomic use of “Ostalgia”. On the one hand, we laugh as Alex pretends in front of his mother that he still wears the same clothes then quickly changes when he leaves the room, or when Christiane’s desire for “Spreewaldgurken” (a type of East German pickle) sends Alex on a wild-goose chase. But at the end of the day, we’re also confronted with the tragic elements of the Reunification: Alex’s neighbours, who worked for forty years to reform East Germany, lose their jobs, money, and purpose overnight. Even Sigmund Jähn (Stefan Walz), the “Cosmonaut” Alex idolised as a boy, has had to become a taxi driver. By the end of the film, we are left in uncertainty about the place of “Ostalgia” in modern Germany. Simply put, we’re never allowed to stop wondering if Alex is an hero for allowing his mother to live out her days in the GDR she loved, or if he’s deceiving himself.
Good Bye, Lenin is a more complex work than it is given credit for. Through its multiple layers of motivations for deception, it exposes the complexities of family life, and questions the morality of white lies and nostalgia. Furthermore, by subverting any sort of moral judgement, the film is never so forgiving or pedantic as to tell us how to feel. What the film does so well is recreate the characters’ complex emotions in its audience: Brühl projects the multiplicity of his emotions onto the audience through voiceovers, expressions, and dialogue which never seem to entirely line up, and the result is not confusion, but depth. We’re left, like Alex, with a half-smile on our face: is this a touching, feel-good story, or should we focus on the suppressed pain each behind each white lie?