“The future lay in our hands. Uncertain, yet promising.”
On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Life in East Germany was radically altered as westernization and capitalism drastically changed the way people lived their lives. Good Bye, Lenin! brings up an interesting question: what if someone was in a coma while this upheaval occurred? Better yet, what if that person woke up afterwards and couldn’t experience any major shock due to their condition and must be kept in the dark about what’s happened to their country? The premise seems a bit farcical, but director Wolfgang Becker pulls it off with admirable style and drama, striking a tilted balance between silly antics and heartbreaking characterization that make for a splendid, thought-provoking end result.
While 22 year-old Alex Kerner attempts to keep his bedridden mother in the dark about the fall of Communism, the world around him is changing dramatically. This is probably the most fascinating part of the film. The westernization of East Germany gives us a really neat look at how everyday life was changed with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It’s the little details that Becker presents – the western cable companies popping up, the CocaCola billboards, the new apartment furnishings. In part, the premise of the film is just a way to explore these changes with some humorous and heartfelt performances. Of course there’s a subplot where Alex’s father has been gone in West Germany since he was a boy, and this story is well executed but ultimately a lesser aspect of the film. This is a movie about Alex and his mother, who represent two different worlds, and this conflict really seems to be what Becker wants to explore.
Daniel Bruhl brings a fun performance as Alex. He plays the comedy of the film far more subtle, letting the script do the work instead of resorting to bumbling farce as some other actors may be inclined to do. Bruhl has actually had a pretty distinguished career for American audiences as well. If you’re unfamiliar, he plays the young Nazi soldier Frederick Zoller in Inglorious Basterds along with significant roles in Captain America: Civil War, The Bourne Ultimatum, Rush, and Colonia. This may be the most complex character he’s played in a film, and he really digs into the conflict of it. However, we get to see the changes of East Germany through his eyes. You see Alex come to love western culture, but his love for his mother far outweighs any of this, and it makes for a neat character study. The scene where he meets his father for the first time is smart and simple, with Becker employing restraint and honesty in their encounter. Other standouts include Maria Simon as Alex’s sister Ariane and Chulpan Khamatova as Alex’s new girlfriend Lara.
Through the exploration of East Germany’s westernization, Becker also has some things to say about culture. Alex’s sister Ariane drops her studies to pursue a career flipping patties at Burger King. You could argue that Becker is criticizing the capitalist system which lures so many young people into such a trap, but there is a glorification of the decision that convinces me otherwise. Ariane finds no shame in working at Burger King, just as Alex seems to enjoy his new job selling cable boxes at doorsteps. This also leads me into one of my favorite scenes with perhaps my favorite character, Denis (played by Florian Lukas). Denis aspires to be a filmmaker, and these talents prove useful when Alex needs to fabricate Eastern news broadcasts to keep up the ruse with his mother. There is a scene in which Denis is demonstrating his film work to Alex, where he cuts from a bouquet of flowers to a wedding cake and claims that he was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s famous spaceship cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Becker yet again references Kubrick in the bedroom arrangement scene, with Rossini’s William Tell Overture playing in the background, a direct reference to A Clockwork Orange. The portrayal of westernization isn’t flawless, but Becker seems to admire the freedoms that come along with life in the west. He is reminding the audience that the fall of the Berlin Wall wasn’t just of political and economic consequence, it radically altered culture. The way people lived their lives in East Germany would never be the same, and Becker suggests this is for the best.
One might go into this viewing as I did, expecting a playful farce about recreating the past. In a way, the film delivers on this account, but you’ll find yourself far more invested in the ideological struggle and the commentary of the film than the actual plot. Every scene goes somewhere new, often through a dark, realist lens but with an ultimately inspiring message. The premise alone is unique and thoughtful, and the film itself never ceases to captivate and surprise its audience with an honest portrayal of a fascinating period in history. It’s a wonderful piece of cinema, serving both as an entertaining story and a significant cultural commentary.
Films Left to Watch: 934