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Goodbye, Lenin

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Directed by Wolfgang Becker
Written by Wolfgang Becker & Bernd Lichtenberg

The review for Goodbye, Lenin! fell into my lap because another reviewer was put off by the synopsis. Admittedly, the premise sounds very odd and a tad corny, reminiscent of an episode of Three’s Company. The year is 1989 and the story takes place in East Berlin. Christiane, a woman who works in the Communist Party has a heart attack and falls into a coma for eight months. Over the course of those eight months, the Berlin Wall comes down. When Christiane awakes, she is in such a fragile condition that her son has to keep her from learning that the Communists no longer run East Germany because the shock of such news could kill her. Although it sounds like a madcap, screwball comedy, this film is a very touching drama about what lengths a young man will go to protect and care for his mother.

Christiane’s husband abandons the family when Alexander and his sister, Ariane, are very young. This prompts Christiane to get actively involved with the Communist Party. Years later, Christiane is on her way to a Party event when she sees Alex getting arrested during a protest march. This causes her to suffer a severe heart attack that puts her into a coma. Alex visits his mother frequently in the hospital.

The Berlin Wall falls and the West quickly permeates all facets of life. Alex gets a job installing satellite dishes, which are in great demand since the people now have no imposed limits on their curiosity or their sources of information. Ariane gets a job at Burger King and a West German boyfriend. They get modern clothes, redecorate the apartment and adapt to a unified Germany.

Eight months go by and Christiane comes out of her coma; however, the doctor warns that her heart is still very weak and any sudden shocks or surprises could kill her. Alex is worried about his mother’s reaction to finding out about the collapse of the Communist Party because of its importance to her. He realizes that he can’t prevent her from learning about it while she stays in the hospital. A nurse, a doctor, even a patient might say something, revealing what has happened in recent months. Against the orders of doctors and his sister’s wishes, Alex moves Christiane back home in an attempt to keep her isolated; however, this presents other problems.

The West has brought capitalism into the economy, which means that the grocery stores now offer a variety of new products. Before Alex prepares meals for his mother, he rummages through the garbage for old containers, cleaning them and then transferring the new items. This ritual becomes much more difficult with each week that passes as the Communist brands become scarce.

Being bedridden and isolated eventually bores Christiane, so she requests her television set. Alex enlists the aid of Denis, a coworker who dreams of being a filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick. They acquire old broadcasts of old East German programs that Alex plays on a hidden VCR. When the real world spills in and puts Alex in a bind, they create fake news broadcasts, splicing together old archival footage with new material they record. One afternoon Christiane looks out the window and sees a giant banner for Coca-Cola. Nothing could be more capitalistic, yet here it was in East Berlin. Alex can’t make up a convincing story fast enough, so Denis and he piece together a news segment that explains how an East German man invented the formula that later became Coca-Cola. It was stolen by the West and has now been brought back for the people’s enjoyment.

The entire crew of Goodbye, Lenin! does a masterful job creating this film. It is so realistic that it feels like watching a documentary, so I don’t know if the production design team or the location manager deserves more credit. The actors give very good performances and that is due to a great, original script with believable characters and an engaging plot that progressed to a satisfying conclusion. The talent of the director doesn’t become evident until the movie is over because he doesn’t draw attention to himself with camera acrobatics or editing gimmicks. Instead he wants to do what best serves the story and creates a wonderful film in the process. I will certainly be awaiting his next film.

What I enjoyed most was getting to see characters in a time and place that I knew nothing about even though the historical events took place fairly recently. It was very interesting to see how some East German people were affected by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the changes that event brought with it. There is also a comfort in knowing that an East German man loves his mother the same way as everyone else does. We need more films like this to learn how similar we all are instead of seeing the minor differences.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://www.heimatseeker.com sibylle

    Nice review. I grew up in (then West) Germany and was just out of high school when the wall fell. It was such a moving time in 1989/1990, and to this day I get very emotional whenever I see images of people tearing down the wall. For a brief moment in history, it really looked as if a better. more just and peaceful world could be possible. (Today, too often this feels like ancient history, even though it’s been less than 15 years.)

    I too thought that the film seemed quite authentic and portrayed well the excitement and hope, but also confusion and loss of sense of direction that everyone felt at that time. What I took away from it was that the story of Alex and what he does for his mom is just a poignant example of the bigger questions that all of us are facing: making sense of and figuring out a place in a confusing, messy, exciting world.