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Good Bye, Lenin

East German Communism falls, comedy ensues


How about this for a premise: A young East German man must shelter his invalid mom, recently graduated from an eight-month coma, from the fact of the disintegration of communism in the DDR (that's German Democratic Republic, East Germany to your mother). During those eight months, East Germany as mom's known it ceases to exist, and her son, under doctor's warning that the slightest upset might kill mom, goes to great lengths to shield her from the perils of consumer abundance. Comedy ensues. The premise of Good Bye, Lenin reads like either a dark farce or light comedy, inappropriate either way. What the viewer actually gets is a humorous film that is nevertheless populated with thoughtful characters and thematic resonance, transcending 1989 Berlin's particulars.

This film is very much about familial relationships, the bond of affection and guilt between parent and child. Circa 1978, Christiane Kerner and her two children, Alexander and Ariane, are left in East Berlin after their father escapes to the West. After dad's abandonment truncates the family unit, mom, a staunch socialist, becomes doubly devoted to the Vaterland. As Alex states early in the film's narration, State replaces the husband/father. Fast-forward a decade: There's a largely unstated tension between Alex and his mother regarding her socialist idealism and his ambivalence and downright opposition. The heart attack and collapse that put Christiane in the coma occur as she witnesses Alex getting arrested amidst a protesting mob. While she's comatose, a cultural revolution takes place that will render her socialist ideals largely obsolete. Alex's tension between loyalty to his mom (which with her also means State loyalty), and discovering his own ideological divergence, are perhaps behind his need to protect her from the drastic changes in her beloved DDR. With her strong persona and unyielding beliefs, "protecting" mom from the truth is an excuse for Alex to resist the age's momentum, finding sanctuary in the midst of exhilarating but frightening changes. Alex shoehorns his mother into a time capsule. To the increasing distaste of his sister and her boyfriend, Alex's girlfriend, and their friends and neighbors, Alex is the only one who doesn't see that they're doomed to failure. Ironically, mother and son share a passion for lost causes.

This film addresses biggies like family, ideology and political upheaval, but it's funny. It's comical watching everyone scramble, at Alex's rabid direction, to protect Christiane from the overnight ubiquitousness of Coke and Burger King, the capitalist excesses of satellite TV and automobiles. The fake news broadcasts are great fun, especially when Alex tries his hand at his version of communist propaganda.

Good Bye, Lenin has garnered a fistful of European film awards, but this movie's appeal isn't restricted to a European audience. We (as Americans) may not identify personally with the socio-political upheavals that took place in a divided Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. We can intellectualize the reunification, though it might not resonate here in the same fashion as in Germany. More broadly, though, momentous changes along generational lines and the fond/stifling quality of family are universal themes.

This is an entertaining film, not a perfect one. There are things about Good Bye, Lenin that are troubling, moments that seem slapstick, subplots that go nowhere. Or take the late-developing subplot about the absent father: when we thought that dad simply abandoned the family, it was easy to read mom's state-lovin' as West = betrayal, East = loyalty. Who was there when her husband absconded? But when more is revealed about dad's disappearance, facets of Christiane's psychology are also revealed. In this light, her motivations become harder to understand, and more ominous.

It's a painful shift of focus and generational right of passage when Alex observes that his mother believed in a country that never existed in the form she believed; Alex has gained a better understanding of their world than his mother. In a telling moment, Christiane is actually confronted with the specter of her main man Lenin, on his way out both metaphorically and literally, and still she cannot see the truth. She doesn't want to. The moment is so comical, yet so dismaying, a mix that defines the film. The humor of Good Bye, Lenin contains a wistfulness that is both uneasy and thought provoking.