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DVD Review: Goodbye Lenin!

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Goodbye Lenin (exclamation point removed for readability) is a German import from 2004, It looks back on the movement of East Germany towards unification and Westernization. Yes, that sounds like a boring historical documentary, but it's not.

The movie is a fictional family drama that uses the fall of the Berlin Wall as a backdrop and catalyst. The main story line concerns a devoted son trying to shield his mother from stress after she wakes from a heart attack and coma that overly weakens her frail body. Yes, that sounds like a heavy Lifetime Network chick flick, but it’s not.

The film is actually a light farce much of the time, relying quite often on typical dry German humor that takes a few seconds to register as a joke at all. Learning the comedic cues for movies such as this and Advertising Rules! is a strange experience for American audiences used to Hollywood's unambiguous laugh lines and gags. You may find yourself analyzing a piece of action or line of dialog and coming to the intellectual conclusion that it is funny before you laugh.

The plot of the movie does not depend on surprise for its effectiveness, so we can safely discuss the story. The film opens in the 1970s, showing a happy family in Socialist East Berlin. The mother is an idealistic believer in the Socialist system, but her son becomes a bit more disaffected as he grows older. In 1989, as protests start to grow, the mother suffers a shock that lays her out, throwing her into a coma (we have seen from earlier incidents that she is prone to physical and emotional frailty). With typical movie logic (you just have to take this in order to let the movie develop), she wakes up, but the doctors say that she can’t experience any stress, shock, or excitement or it could kill her.

Unfortunately, the months she spent in the coma included the entire dismantling of the Socialist system in East Germany and reunification with the West. So the son decides to shield her from any of these events and create a “bubble world” around her where things are the same as she remembers them. This is difficult to do, given the rampant upheaval in every aspect of society around them. He enlists co-conspirators and there are funny bits as he tries to cover up breaks in the facade.

The acting of the leads is excellent. The film work is quite acceptable and never pulls you out of the story – except in one digital effects shot late in the movie, which kills the realism they careful strived for. You’ll know it when you see it. The writer/director does a nice job of leading you to a point of view that is a bit wistful and surprising.

On the surface, Goodbye Lenin seems to be a straightforward examination of the love between a boy and his mother. But in a larger sense, the movie is a rumination on the love of idealism and the conflict between the stated goals and the realities of the East German socialist "experiment." It also plays with the manipulative power of media-controlled imagery and the relative nature of truth. Each of us knows a truth based on what we are shown, and it is not that difficult to create a reality that is subjective rather than objective. There is a lesson here for supporters of Fox News as well as supporters of Michael Moore documentaries.

Don't be put off by the deeper aspects of the movie mentioned above. It is first and foremost a delightful piece of light entertainment and well worth a rental. The audio and video demands of the film are easy for the home environment. There are no fancy surround sound effects and most of the movie is shot in a bright color palette that will replay well on standard TV sets in most lighting conditions.

Parents’ note: There is a curse word in the English subtitles, but all dialog is in German. There is one brief shot of male nudity in a non-sexual context and one brief shot of female breasts in a strange and humorous softcore sexual context.

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  • Aaron Fleming

    An enjoyable movie, if not a bit slight on the old impression scale. I think you cover everything appropriately here, kudos.