Good Bye, Lenin! Wolfgang Becker, director.
Reviewed by Jon B. Olsen
Published on H-German (April, 2004)
Wolfgang Becker's <cite>Good Bye, Lenin!</cite> was a runaway hit in German theaters in 2003 and has garnered numerous international film awards, including a Cesar (France), the Blue Angel (Germany), the European Film Award (Europe), and has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award (USA). It has now been released on DVD in Europe and opened in February 2004 in theaters across the United States. The film's critical and commercial success has much to do with its ability to portray a (re)constructed reality of life in the former German Democratic Republic that delivers a mixture of tragedy and comedy and forces the viewer to contemplate serious questions about the impact of radical change on the human experience. <p> The topic of life in the GDR, during the Revolution of 1989, and the struggle to regain normalcy in the early 1990s is not new to German film. Films such as <cite>Sonnenallee</cite> (1999) have attempted to look at life in East Germany with a lighthearted, nostalgic, perspective and Becker's earlier film <cite>Das Leben ist eine Baustelle</cite> (1997) dealt with a young East German male trying to make it a world that has collapsed around him. Yet <cite>Good Bye, Lenin!</cite> is able to grapple with issues such as nostalgia (or "<cite>Ostalgie</cite>") and dramatic social upheaval on a wholly different level. Becker, a West German, approaches the topic from a more analytical and detached perspective than previous films seemed to have had. The key to his success is his ability to merge archival and original film footage into a montage that lends added credibility to his own work, while immediately calling all visual representation of the past into question. <p> Becker uses popular memory of life in the former GDR both as a narrative mechanism within the film and as a link between the audience and the experience of the characters. The movie begins with a thirty-minute flashback scene with a voice-over narration by the main character, Alex (Daniel Bruehl). During this initial sequence the viewer is told of Alex's fascination as a young boy with Sigmund Jaehn, the first East German Cosmonaut. After being abandoned by her husband who fled to the West, Alex's mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass), rededicates herself to serving the state. Some might see Christiane's character as representing a loyal party advocate; however, her character is much more complicated and represents rather someone who desired to reform the system from within (as through her constant letter-writing campaigns). Throughout the retelling of this background information, Becker mixes archive footage from 1978/79 with scenes portraying the family life of the Kerner household. This particular mixture provides a feeling of reality that connects with personal memories residing in the audience and is able to bring the viewer into a more intimate relationship with the characters than if the film had been shot entirely from new material. <p> The second level of memory employed in the film begins following a ten-year jump from the summer of 1979 to the eve of the GDR's fortieth anniversary in October 1989. Once again, Becker employs a mixture of archival and new footage to provide a more realistic and believable situation. As Christiane tries to make her way to the anniversary celebration at the Palast der Republik, she crosses paths with Alex who is participating in an anti-SED demonstration and is in the process of being arrested by the Stasi. This scene evokes memories from two separate constituencies, those fighting for the removal of the SED and those hoping to reform the system from within. Christiane's shock, both from seeing firsthand the brutality of her state and her son's participation, causes her to suffer a heart attack, after which she is brought to the hospital and drops off into a coma. <p> At this point, the film begins its transition into the third stage of the narrative. While Christiane lies in a coma, she misses the collapse of the GDR and most of the unification process. Life in the Kerner household continues as well: we see Alex's sister Ariane (Maria Simon) take a new job at Burger King. Her "Wessi" boyfriend moves in; Alex takes a new job installing satellite dishes with his new co-worker, Denis (Florian Lukas); and Alex falls in love with Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), an exchange nurse from the Soviet Union. It is during this sequence that the audience relives the turbulent period of transition between Fall 1989 and Summer 1990. There are winners (those who are able to find work), and losers (those who lose their jobs or are "<cite>abgewickelt</cite>"). We see scenes of East Germans confronting the West German consumer culture for the first time as well as the night-life of the "Wild East." <p> Just when a new sense of normality seems to be settling in for the younger members of the Kerner family, Christiane awakes from her coma, albeit in a very fragile state. Eight months have passed since her heart attack and her doctor informs Alex and Maria that their mother cannot sustain another shock to her system--she must not find out about the drastic changes that have taken place in Germany. Alex now begins to prepare for his mother's return to their apartment and must recreate her room exactly as it had been eight months earlier. Alex is confronted with the challenge of locating <cite>Ostprodukte</cite> in a market that has been completely taken over by West German consumer goods. We see Alex replacing Mocca Fix Gold coffee with Jacob's, pouring honey and jam into old jars with East German labels, and lamenting his inability to locate genuine "<cite>Spreewaldguken</cite>." Everything is done in order to support the construction of a new reality of continuity that will shelter Christiane from the political and social changes of which she has no recollection. <p> The charade is sustained through help from the Kerners' neighbors, who play along with the alternative reality, and with the assistance of Alex's colleague Denis, who produces his own version of <cite>Aktuelle Kamera</cite>, a GDR news program, by editing archival footage with his own creations. A particularly sticky situation arises for Alex's alternative reality during the celebration of Christiane's birthday. As the neighbors gather together in her room, a gigantic Coca-Cola banner is unrolled, covering an adjacent building. At the time, no one can come up with an explanation for her. The following day, however, Alex and Denis produce a new <cite>Aktuelle Kamera</cite> newscast that reports the victory of East Germany over Coca-Cola in a patent dispute, proclaiming now that Coca-Cola is a "Socialist drink." When Alex recognizes how easy it is to construct a new reality, he remarks, "On that day, as I stared up into the clouds, it became clear to me that the truth was only a dubious affair, which I could easily adapt to mother's accustomed experience." <p> The parallel track of history that Alex continues to construct, however, becomes more and more difficult to sustain. He must constantly find explanations for the increasing number of West German automobiles, West German "refugees" moving into the neighborhood, and the occasional sounds of West German television piercing through the walls of the apartment. Yet Alex attempts to keep up the charade, while the others begin to find it more and more difficult to sustain the myth. During a trip to their <cite>Datsche</cite>, just as Alex is about to reveal the true situation, Christiane explains to the children that she had lied about the reasons why their father had left--it wasn't another woman, but the harassment by operatives of the state. Alex can no longer follow through with his own revelation. A few days later, Christiane suffers a relapse and finds herself once again in the hospital. Alex seeks out his father, who started a new life and a new family in West Berlin, in order to bring the family back together for one last time before his mother passes away. <p> Symbolic of the act of German unification itself, the family is reunited on the eve of October 3, 1990, although Alex alters the calendar next to Christiane's bed to read October 7, so that she does not wonder about the fireworks and celebrations. In a very short scene, Lara, acting on her own, explains to Christiane about the ruse. Alex is now the only one that maintains the ruse and his mother understands what her son has done for her in order to shelter her from reality. For this final moment, Alex and Denis prepared one last homemade version of <cite>Aktuelle Kamera</cite> for which he enlisted Sigmund Jaehn (Stefan Waltz), now relegated to driving a taxi, to take on the role of Honecker's new replacement. In his address to the people of the GDR, Jaehn proclaims the victory of Socialism and announces that he will open the borders and allow West Germans to immigrate to the GDR. When Christiane dies three days later, Alex believes that he had succeeded in his plan to fully shelter her. <p> Unlike previous films that could be grouped together into the <cite>Ostalgie</cite> category, <cite>Good Bye, Lenin</cite> operates on several different levels of memory politics. There are elements of shared experiences for those who lived in the former GDR (watching <cite>Sandmaennchen</cite> or field trips with the Junge Pioniere) and heroes (Sigmund Jaehn). Another level of memory addresses different experiences during the dramatic events of 1989: those celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the GDR, those looking to reform the system and create a better Socialist state, and those who took to the street in popular protest. The process of unification is seen from both the East and West German perspective; the conflicts and stereotypes of each side are brought out in order to amplify the merging of two related, yet distinct cultures. <p> Most controversial, however, is Alex's use of the <cite>Aktuelle Kamera</cite> as a means to project his alternative reality into the real world and manipulate his mother's perception of reality. Here, we see the function of the media in its most dubious and questionable role. To what extent was all news coverage (in East and West) merely propaganda? Or, was the truth merely manipulated and tailored in order to project a certain interpretation of reality? Becker's film also raises the question, albeit in a rather simplistic interpretation of the GDR, whether or not the entire GDR system was merely a constructed reality that fell apart in 1989. <p> In the end, Becker's film is a fascinating study in the use of memory and constructed reality for studying and discussing the complex variety of experiences related to life in the GDR and during the unification process. This is not a film about high politics, but rather a snapshot of a family forced to deal with a dramatic change that seriously threatens one of its members. The constant shifting between tragedy and comedy complicates the reception and forces the audience to think through its own experiences and perceptions of reality and the past. Popular memories of 1989/90 are still being sorted out and no really dominant majority memory has coalesced within contemporary society. The memories portrayed in this film serve both to contribute to this discussion and to provoke others to bring forth their stories and share their memories with others. <p> Resources: <p> Some resources that may be of interest for those wishing to incorporate this film into their classroom: <p> The official Website: http://www.good-bye-lenin.de <p> A very good booklet prepared by Cristina Moles Kaupp for the Bundeszentrale fuer politische Bildung: http://www.bpb.de/files/RQZRHU.pdf
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Jon B. Olsen. Review of , Good Bye, Lenin!.
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