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If you were a college-aged East Berliner in October of 1989, chances are that your time was occupied by one of several things. Protesting comes to mind, as does hacking at long-reviled concrete. Perhaps you caroused or lit fireworks or sang with joy as you coursed through the newly open streets. Maybe you had some other, deeply personal way of riding the wave of euphoria that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whatever you were doing, it was probably celebratory -- because why would anyone want to return to the bitter (if immediate) past of Soviet-bloc socialism?
Why? Well, it's a long story --- or, rather, a clever setup. 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 for its characters, 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 the small East Berlin flat where he grew up. Years before, when Alex's father left 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 an issue with a toaster or an undergarment, Christiane's counsel would be sought. For years now, Alex has lived in the comfort of his mother's belief in and 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 months -- eight shockingly eventful months in which capitalism storms through town, transforming the once-dour and insular city into a glittering tribute to commercialism. Gone are the red banners of socialism; appearing in their stead are the red banners of Coca-Cola. When Christiane awakes, her doctor allows Alex to take her home, but he warns the young man that his mother's health is still fragile. She is by all means to be protected from upset, lest she suffer another attack.
In other words, rewind. In order to guard his mother against emotional upheaval, Alex must re-create the East Germany she left eight months before, stocking their apartment with the appropriate (and no longer available) products and shielding her from television or casual chats with neighbors. This coma/amnesia conceit is familiar: A sleeping person awakes to a new reality, still mentally and emotionally caught in the past, and has to be updated (or humored or fooled). In this case, the joke is that, whereas in other places and at other times, losing eight months might not set a person back terribly far, in East Germany in 1989, there was an absurdly huge shift in an entire society --- and a shift considered almost uniformly positive. To return to the previous, undesirable state of things merely to bring someone peace and joy: It's a clever and sweet-humored bit of situational comedy.
Which, predictably, gets out of hand, becoming something far greater than Alex originally intended. Meanwhile, the joke flirts with overstaying its welcome: For a stretch in the middle of the movie, it seems that the conflict will rely on this single conceit until the end, milking it dry. Happily, that doesn't prove to be the case, and anyway Becker sweetens the delivery with such artful attention to props and scenery that almost every shot offers something delightful. During Alex's consultation about his mother's prognosis, the doctor's coffee mug sports a frowning yellow face. On its other side, we soon see, is a smiley face, but this is turned toward the doctor, a grave and humorless man. What is this guy doing with this mug? On the one hand, it's obvious: He's scowling at family members and hoarding whatever joy he might possess, turning it sharply inward. On the other hand, what?
Then there's the film's triumphant image, in which a single helicopter trails a statue of Lenin's upper half, arm extended, flying away over the city. The statue seems almost alive, as though Lenin is both appealing to the people (and to Alex's mother in particular) and waving goodbye, acknowledging his defeat at the hands of capitalism. Christiane stands on the sidewalk, staring at Lenin, connecting with him, seeing him off. She has shared his dream.
This is a film about a mother and a son and what the latter will do for the former -- but also, we learn, for himself. It is also a film about how the forces of culture affect a life and what happens when they undergo tremendous change, how bewildering and uprooting that can be. One of the central metaphors is that of space exploration, in which cosmonauts stand both for the pinnacle of achievement and for the nearly unfathomable bravery of traveling into the blackest void. For Alex and his mother, that void is much closer than space: It's the Western half of Berlin. It's having everything you've ever known turned upside down by the sudden and total infiltration of another culture into your own. And even for young Alex, it's not an easy transition.
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