Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Modern Film Classics: “Goodbye Lenin!”

One of the best things they don’t tell you in German tourist guides are those small shops that sell Soviet-era goods. When the Berlin Wall fell, the flush of capitalism flooded East German shops, washing away goods from that era, including now-defunct brands like Spreewalt brand pickles, Moccafixgold hot chocolate, and Trabant automobiles. These were replaced by more familiar names such as General Mills, Starbucks and Audi. Nevertheless, there remains some fondness for the East German days by the older generation, a nostalgia referred to affectionately as “Ostalgie”. I thought about this while watching Wolfgang Becker’s raucous 2003 German dramedy Good Bye, Lenin!

We first meet the Kerner family in 1978. Young Alex (Daniel Brühl) dreams of becoming an astronaut (called “cosmonauts” back then) some day. His sister Ariane (Maria Simon) has the potential to become a great academic. Their father has gone missing, presumed to have taken up in the West with a woman of ill repute, according to their brittle mother, Christiane (Katrin Saß), who responds by becoming a leading educator in the East German Communist Party. A decade later, Alex and Ariane have become layabouts and Christiane is still going strong. On October 7, 1989, during an anti-government demonstration, Christiane sees Alex being taken by riot police and promptly suffers a heart attack. As she lays in a coma, she has no idea that Communism has collapsed, that the Berlin Wall fell, and that German reunification had been realized. Doctors warn Alex and Ariane that their mother is in such frail health that she cannot be excited or disturbed, and they wonder if she will ever wake up.

By the summer of 1990, Alex ekes out a living by installing satellite dishes and has struck up a relationship with the Russian nurse looking after her mother, Lara (Chulpan Khamatova). Ariane has quit university to work at Burger King and is now in a relationship with her free-wheeling coworker Rainer, who enjoys dancing to Indian trance music in the cramped family apartment when he’s not whiling away in his tanning bed. All seems to carry on well until one day, Christiane awakes. Alex, not wanting to disturb his mother or shock her by revealing the truth – that Communism and the system she had believed in so fiercely and unquestionably had evanesced, leaving her without a legacy for her life’s work – decides to bring Christiane back home into her old room in the apartment, filling the space with now-outdated Communist propaganda and shielding her from the truth about German reunification. The ruse becomes so elaborate that when she craves Spreewalt pickles, Alex finds out that grocery stores no longer sell them and he resorts to buying a Dutch brand that he then puts in old Spreewalt jars. Eventually, he recruits his zany coworker Denis (Florian Lukas) into filming fake newscasts for his mother to watch, confirming that all was alive and well in the DDR (German Democratic Republic). As Denis is an aspiring filmmaker, they stretch the truth by concocting stories on alleged political developments, and create an entirely new reality exclusively for Christiane, who has no idea what’s going on.

The film is structured like a juggling act, with Alex as the juggler adding not only more balls to his act, but also flaming torches, electric saws and knives, struggling to balance everything in the figurative air. They might have created a birthday party for the bedridden Christiane in her room, with “official greetings” from the Party and East German Youth singing songs of loyalty to the DDR, but they can’t conceal the unexpected Coca-Cola ad that is being installed at that exact moment in the building across the street. When Christiane suggests an outing to the family’s summer cottage, Ariane snipes at Alex’s elaborate ruse that he should set about redecorating all of Berlin if he expects to keep up appearances.

While I have just described possibly the zaniest film ever inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is a film that is informative and has great insight on the immediate fallout. As the Communist system no longer existed, seniority amongst its ranks amounted to nothing, and high-ranking officials that Christiane knew have defected or been made unfit for useful employment, turning to drink and endless hours of television to fill the abrupt void foisted upon their lives. Capitalism resulted in a strange devaluation of the old system, and Becker understands that the new freedom was not for everyone. It reminds me of the old Simpsons episode where an ant colony is destroyed and the made-up subtitles read, as the ants go flying into space (this was on a spaceship), the ants squeak, “Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!”

Becker brings a deft comic touch to the proceedings but also conveys Alex’s love for his mother and what he is willing to do to please her. While it would have been easy to demonize Christiane and ridicule her for her beliefs, Becker preserves her dignity by emphasizing how hard she has worked to better the lives of her children, and by extension the country as a whole. Her sacrifices take on even greater significance as we find out more about the Kerner family history. Saß smartly plays her as an intelligent woman who, even while bedridden and severely weakened, is too sharp to not suspect anything. She has a look in her eye that questions everything just a little, and is content to observe and understand rather than to interrogate. 

Alex, while perhaps misguided in his decision to keep up appearances at all costs, is an everyman cast adrift from a childhood of unfulfilled potential, floundering and adjusting to the new world order and his immediate reality as best he can, under the circumstances. And what of Ariane: has she lost her potential? What can we say about what will become of the former East Germany’s children in the global social contract? There’s an encounter later in the film that almost destroys the careful balance of everything that has come before, and cleanly undercuts Alex’s ruse by unearthing a heartbreaking truth about the past. Reality is indeed created not only by perception, but by how it manifests itself into acts, deeds and words that affect everyone.

The film has an excellent sense of time and place, particularly in the shocking and abrupt change in aesthetics that came about in 1989-1990 East Germany. The costumes have just enough Soviet-era kitsch and early 90s Eurotrash-goes-to-Hollywood fun. When Ariane pulls out her old clothes to wear for Christiane’s homecoming, she cracks, “can you believe the crap we used to wear?” Even the locations in Berlin chosen for the film were appropriate to the era, with little commercialization, showing that nothing much has changed since the Cold War. Parts of Berlin still look like this today, allowing tourists to look both forwards and backwards to what has been and what is yet to come, inquiring if perhaps Alex has done something questionable by fooling his mother and not permitting her to accept the mighty change in politics and circumstance. (Detractors of the film will find this to be the major sticking point, but I believe it’s part of the film’s deft balance between comedy and drama and one of the reasons this is an excellent film.)

Good Bye Lenin! opened to a thunderous reception at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival, and went on to sweep the German and European Film Awards, as well as several international prizes including a BAFTA nomination for Best Foreign Film. Of the cast, the sensitive Brühl has in particular distinguished himself by taking on roles in international and American productions, such as The Bourne Ultimatum and Inglourious Basterds, for which he shared a coveted Screen Actors Guild Award with Brad Pitt, Christof Waltz, Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent. It remains a warm, very funny and humane look at how changing political climes truly affect a family and asks about our places in the new world.