It’s 1989 and Germany is still a nation divided. After her husband leaves her for a better life in West Germany, Christiane (Katrin Sass) finds herself proudly “married to her socialist fatherland.” In the days leading up to Germany’s unification, Christiane suffers a heart attack after witnessing her son Alex (Daniel Brühl) marching in an anti-communist demonstration. Slipping into a coma, Christiane sleeps through the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the East with the West.
When she wakes eight months later, Capitalism has triumphed by saturating Germany with a globalized ethos. Even her family has embraced the West: Alex installs satellite TV dishes, and daughter Ariane (Maria Simon) is working for Burger King. During Christiane’s big sleep, the drab familiarity of communist DDR had been replaced by garish brandscapes and new Westernized ideals of progress. Fearing his mother’s fragile health will not survive Germany’s unification, Alex re-furnishes the family apartment with the (now) kitschy communist aesthetic of the former DDR. So meticulous is Alex’s fabrication that, upon returning home, Christiane happily remarks that nothing has changed.
In Good Bye, Lenin! the world is awakened to new possibilities but Alex forces a social blindness on his mother, believing she will survive if her politics can continue unchanged. If Christiane hadn’t suffered a heart attack after witnessing Alex’s oppositional politics in action, the collapse of the Berlin Wall would have sent her health packing anyway. And so, the fantasy of sleeping through major world-changing events offers numerous tragicomic possibilities. What if the same thing happened to a World Trade Center Employee? Would he wake up and go to work or would his loved ones protect him from history?
Initially Alex’s charade presents few challenges. He installs a hidden VCR that plays back old news footage and empties new imported foods into jars found in the trash. When mom spies a Coca-Cola billboard from her window, Alex enlists budding filmmaker Denis (Florian Lukas) to produce a farfetched news story — complete with phony news anchor and video footage — to explain its emergence. Alex becomes his own propaganda machine, spinning the kinds of lies that he once rallied against.
But Alex soon discovers that the trash heap of history is comprised of more than archival news footage and old pickle jars. The attitudes once forced upon the former DDR are changing fast, making it harder to locate people willing to perpetuate his regressive masquerade. On Christiane’s birthday, Alex convinces some of her friends to join him in the lie. Even Alex’s new girlfriend Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) plays along for a while. But when he starts inventing idealistic backstories for Lara and his sister’s dopey boyfriend Rainer (Alexander Beyer), the lie spirals out of control, causing tension between Alex and those around him.
Alex’s desire to help his mother at all costs makes the premise of Good Bye, Lenin! heartfelt and bittersweet. But the lie can only be sustained through the accumulation of others. After a while, it feels as if the plot exceeds its logical limits, becoming nonsensical despite its best melodramatic intentions. “I didn’t want Good Bye Lenin! to be farcical,” says director Wolfgang Becker on the film’s official site. “Everyone feels differently about how far comedy — in the best sense of the word — can go, and the point when it tips over into slapstick and foolishness.”
Becker certainly knows how to elicit finely tuned dramatic performances from his cast (Brühl, Sass, and Simon are standouts), but when it comes to comedy, the director takes the joke too far, relying on reductive slapstick tricks like fast motion. The most effective comic moments pay tribute to pop culture signs and corporate branding. A statue of Lenin hanging from a helicopter recalls La Dolce Vita, and a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey is recreated in one of Denis’ homemade videos. Recurring Coca-Cola and Burger King trademarks wittily acknowledge how even digs at consumerism must inevitably grant it center stage.
The scene when Ariane begins her Burger King tenure is staged exactly like a cheesy TV commercial, in effect halting the narrative flow as if cinema intermission has been announced. In The Truman Show, Meryl (Laura Linney) similarly interrupts the diegesis to offer homemaking tips. If that movie satirizes our desire to be immersed in the global image stream, then Good Bye, Lenin! demonstrates how an effective critique of globalization depends on acknowledging its omnipresence, no matter our desire.
Film review of Good Bye, Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003) for PopMatters.
Published by PopMatters in 2004.