- Cute socialism does not obscure the story of a loving son.
If you were a college-aged East Berliner in October of 1989, chances are that your time was occupied by things like protesting or hacking at the Berlin Wall. Perhaps you caroused or lit fireworks or sang with joy in the newly open streets. Whatever you were doing, it was probably celebratory -- because who would miss the bitter past of Soviet-bloc socialism?
In Good Bye, Lenin!, a charming new film from director Wolfgang Becker, the fall of East German socialism provides the comedic backdrop for a tender story about a boy's love for his mother. With lighthearted wit, compassion, and an artful attention to detail, the film is winningly funny and humane.
It's 1989, and 20-year-old Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl) lives with his mother Christiane (Katrin Sass) in a small East Berlin flat. Years before, when Alex's father left her for another woman, Christiane "married the socialist fatherland," becoming a model citizen and teacher. In particular, she took it upon herself to address the failings of everyday objects by launching letter-writing campaigns: Whenever a neighbor had a grievance over a toaster or an undergarment, Christiane's counsel would be sought. For years, Alex has lived with his mother's loyalty to the state -- and how could you not adore a woman who crusades against garishly colored maternity wear and wrongly proportioned sweaters?
In October 1989, two things happen on a single day: the Wall comes down, and Christiane Kerner has a heart attack. She falls into a coma, remaining there for eight shockingly eventful months, while the once dour and insular city is transformed into a glittering tribute to commercialism. When Christiane awakens, her doctor warns Alex that his mother must be protected from upset, lest she suffer another attack.
So Alex sets out to re-create the East Germany she knew, stocking their apartment with familiar (and no longer available) products and shielding her from television or casual chats with neighbors. This coma/amnesia conceit is familiar; in this case, the joke is that in East Germany in 1989, the shift was enormous and almost uniformly positive. To return to the previous state of things merely to bring someone peace and joy is a clever and sweet-humored bit of situational comedy.
Predictably, this gets out of hand, and the joke flirts with overstaying its welcome. Ultimately, however, this is a film about how cultural forces affect a life and of what happens when those forces undergo tremendous change. One of the central metaphors is that of space exploration, in which cosmonauts stand for both the pinnacle of achievement and the bravery of traveling into the void. For Alex and his mother, that void is much closer than space: It's the western half of Berlin.
Good Bye, Lenin! is bighearted enough to encompass both the absurdity and the sorrow of everyday life. It chuckles at socialism while sympathizing with a woman who formed herself around it, and it allows a young and forward-looking man to find refuge in the backward-looking comforts of home.