Good Bye, Lenin!
Berlin (East) in autumn 1989: Alex Kerner's mother is in a coma after a heart attack and misses the fall of the Berlin Wall. She awakes in summer 1990. Her doctor declares that excitement of any kind could be fatal. Alex must conceal the fall of the SED regime from her. He and his friends pretend to the sick woman that the GDR still exists; the illusion remains perfect until one day the truth can no longer be concealed. The clever comedy was the most successful film of the year in 2003.
GDR, summer 1978: Sigmund Jähn is the first German in space onboard the "Soyus 31". Alex Kerner's father also leaves his country and goes west. One is a hero, the other a deserter. The men from the state security agency visit Alex's mother and cause a first mental breakdown. Upon her return from hospital, the woman becomes an activist, while the rest of the family continues its socialist life - until autumn 1989. Alex takes part in the "evening walk", a demonstration for freedom which is brutally broken up by representatives of the state. On her way to a celebration in the "Palast der Republik", the woman sees how her son is brutally beaten up. She breaks down, is taken to hospital far too late and is now in a coma following a heart attack. The Berlin Wall falls, Honecker departs and the Kerner's flat is upgraded to western standards. Alex's mother, however, misses out on the victory of capitalism. She awakes in summer 1990. The doctor declares that excitement of any kind could prove fatal for the patient. Alex is forced to conceal the demise of the SED regime from her at first, but what will happen when the woman returns home, albeit confined to bed?
What follows is the story of GDR nostalgia in practice: from reconstruction of the bedroom at home to the search for familiar Spreewald gherkins, a traditional product which rapidly disappears from the market and is replaced by western products. In his despair, the boy transfers modern products into old packages and the east-west swindle is successful. Ever more desperate measures are needed to keep up the illusion as the mother recovers her health. Alex spares no effort to celebrate her birthday; he invites old comrades, and boys from the "Young Pioneers" which have long since been disbanded come to sing songs praising their socialist homeland. He even manages to solve the problem of the media with the help of a friend: Denis is a born propagandist who merges pictures from his video camera with archive material from the former GDR and gives the material new meaning. Alex's mother falls for the swindle, not only on account of the tricks used, but also because of her limited imagination which cannot go further than October 89.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, every trace of the former GDR was wiped out so thoroughly and consistently, that barely a decade later fiction was needed in order to reconstruct it. The story told by Bernd Lichtenberg and Wolfgang Becker may appear absurd at first glance, but the question on which it is based is by no means absurd: what visible evidence did the people have to prove the state's existence? To what extent did the state rely on symbols, signals and rituals which could be manipulated? They lead to another question, namely: by what means can the illusion of the GDR's continued existence be created? and it is the answer to these that results in comedy with slightly tragic undertones, although unconditional merriness was never the director's intention.
GOOD BYE LENIN! wittily and cleverly demonstrates the arbitrariness of images and sounds and goes far beyond its own story: what makes the deception even easier is that the GDR itself had developed its own manipulated self-presentation for forty years, with the result that the purported documents could quite simply be turned around by the same methods - even the state's demise is steered in other directions. According to the material manipulated by Denis, it is not the people of the GDR who stream from East to West Berlin after the fall of the Wall: the "Wessies" as the people of the west are known, appear to be scurrying eastwards anxious to escape from consumerism and unemployment.
In the summer of 1991, Alex must end the fiction of a living GDR with a final coup. It is the time to say goodbye to mother, who must in turn admit to a number of major untruths. And it is the moment at which Alex finds his father and a new family eagerly watching "Sandmännchen" on television - a cult programme that has survived the GDR just like Wolfgang Becker's magnificent leading lady Katrin Sass. Even as mother in a coma, she radiates an enormous presence making it perfectly clear that she knows exactly what this film is all about.
Sometimes GOOD BYE LENIN! even appears to recall the Defa cinemas, as in the scene in which an aircraft crosses the sky of East Berlin, an aircraft which can only be flying westwards. An almost identical image of secret or subliminal desire was also to be seen in Lothar Warneke's film DIE BEUNRUHIGUNG (1981). Wolfgang Becker also recalls other films about the upheaval in Europe: the dismembered statue of Lenin gliding through the air almost weightlessly under a helicopter first appeared in the film DER BLICK DES ODYSSEUS by the Greek Theo Angelopoulos. And the motif of the world championship - which reunified Germany won in 1990 - continues a tradition begun by Fassbinder in DIE EHE DER MARIA BRAUN and LOLA.
It is a pity - and this is perhaps the main shortcoming of a film with innumerable surprisingly consistent details - that the film's episodic structure must be held together by Alex Kerner's off-stage narrative and consequently always seems more like a revue show. The story even ends on a slightly bitter note. Yet reality has a new consolation for the nostalgics among us, for Spreewald gherkins are undergoing a revival, even in the western part of Germany.
GOOD BYE, LENIN! was a box-office success in Germany in 2003 and has been seen by more people than many Hollywood productions. The film was awarded the European Film Prize in late autumn.
Image © Bavaria Film International