Good Bye Lenin! (15)
Don't mention the wall
Friday 25 July 2003
It is generally agreed that the only time you should lie is to save someone from being hurt. In Wolfgang Becker's charming, melancholic Good Bye Lenin! a son lies to his mother to save her from dying, and so elaborate is the deception that it gradually takes over his life. Most comedies of dissemblance involve characters disguising themselves to escape detection - think of To Be Or Not To Be or Some Like It Hot. The young hero of Becker's movie is required to fake not just appearances but a whole culture, and the strain of it is at once hilarious and deeply poignant.
The year is 1989, Germany is still divided and revolution is on the march. Alex (Daniel Brühl) lives in communist East Berlin with his sister and mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass), a committed Party member ever since her husband escaped to the West, abandoning her and the children. One evening Christiane happens to witness Alex's arrest during a street demonstration; she collapses from a heart attack and falls into a coma. Eight months later she awakens from it, though the doctors warn Alex that any sudden shock may be fatal to her fragile system. Her finding out, for instance, that communism has been routed would not be such a good idea. In fact, don't mention the wall.
So Alex immediately sets about concealing the realities of reunified Germany, redecorating his mother's bedroom in the unluxurious style of yesteryear and forcing family and neighbours to wear the drab duds they sported before "Westernisation". On the streets, car horns toot in honour of Germany's World Cup victory in 1990, but inside this particular apartment the time has been frozen. Becker and his co-writer Bernd Lichtenberg see the farce in Alex's frantic rearrangements - in a few sequences the film is speeded up - but they also find something touching in his efforts to get the details right. To celebrate his still-bedbound mother's birthday, Alex not only gathers old Party friends into her room; he also arranges for two local scamps to dress up as communist juniors and sing patriotic songs. Gradually the deception gathers momentum: when his mother asks for a television in the room, Alex realises the game will be up if she watches the news, so with the help of his friend Denis (Florian Lukas) he compiles video tapes of bogus news items that pity the West and their degenerate capitalist ways. Even a new car has to be explained away: "We were only on the waiting list for three years," says Christiane, amazed at their good fortune.
"It's creepy what you're doing to your mother," Alex's girlfriend Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) tells him, but what she fails to understand is that Alex couldn't stop this counterfeiting of reality even if he wanted to. He welcomes the efficiency of the West (cars that work) but he regrets the hard-sell vulgarity that comes with it (the gigantic billboard adverts for Coca-Cola and Ikea, for instance), and what starts as a weird mission of mercy becomes an addictive nostalgia trip. Just check the delight in his eyes when Alex happens upon an old pickle jar that was once his mother's favourite brand; now he can fill it with fresh gherkins and nobody will be any the wiser.
There is a tragicomic echo of this preoccupation with brand-name food when Alex's sister, Ariane (Maria Simon), who has taken a job flipping burgers, sees their father at the drive-through. "What did you say to him?" Alex asks, agog with curiosity. "Enjoy your meal and thank you for choosing Burger King," she replies sadly, and a flashback informs us how their father didn't even glance in his daughter's direction.
If the very idea of a German comedy seems unlikely, then praise is also due Becker for refusing to lay it on thick. Instead, he trusts his actors to play it straight and allow what laughs there are to emerge naturally. Brühl's boyishly open face is crucial to this. There's nothing premeditated or sly in Alex's behaviour, it's just that he's good at thinking on his feet. One can almost see a lightbulb snapping on behind his eyes as a good idea suggests itself.
As his mother, Katrin Sass beautifully conveys intelligence and befuddlement at the same time. Prior to her collapse, she has the brisk, capable air of a woman who has hidden her disappointment in her work. Post-coma, she still addresses friends as "comrades" but always seems on the verge of twigging that the time, her time, is out of joint. The irony is that she herself has been harbouring a secret about her ex-husband, an untold past whose effect rocks Alex and his sister more fiercely than any political upheaval could have done.
There's a slight wobble in the plotting towards the end when Lara appears to let the cat out of the bag and tells Alex's mother the lie they've been living since she came out of her coma. But the revelation is subsequently ignored by both, and Alex's final faked news report of Erich Honecker peacefully surrendering power and of East Germany "welcoming" Westerners across its borders seems to satisfy his mother. No matter. One feels a wistfulness throughout Good Bye Lenin!, a sense that, though life under communism was austere, it had a kind of innocence, too. As ever, the cost of anything new worth having is the loss of something old worth keeping.
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