Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 22, 2004 4:08 pm 
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Faithful fakery

The story of a boy who tries to pretend to his sick mother that the Berlin wall is still up and Germany is not reunifying, “Goodbye, Lenin!” is full of offhand affection for the rinky-dink idealism, the complaints and self-criticism, the general incompetence and stagnation of the old communist world, which are seen in humorous retrospect as peaceful and safe. Capitalism is rapacious and cruelly materialistic and progress ain’t all that great when you think about it, co-writer-director Wolfgang Becker seems to be saying.

Young Alex Kerner is trying to shield his mother from what’s going on. She has had a heart attack and slipped into an eight-month coma. During that time the Berlin wall has fallen and the Eastern sector where the Kerners live has changed rapidly and forever. He’s been led to believe that when she awakens, any shock can cause another attack. So Alex (the pretty, virginal-looking Daniel Brühl) goes to any lengths to hide from his mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass) the day-to-day facts of life in the new, changed East Berlin.

Charming but a bit saccharine, this Rip van Winkle saga is a story of nostalgia, resistance to change, family devotion, and above all, the most touching filial love. But perhaps its main subject, which has made it immensely popular in Germany itself, is what looks so nice now about the old communist world. Viewed with Ostalgie -- in rose-tinted retrospect -- that world now looks to Germans as if it was at least motivated by wise and pleasant dreams. The new world is comfy, but has underpinnings of nastiness and greed. And look what the collapse of the Communist Block has got us: "endless war" and American empire.

Early flashbacks show us that Christiane had became an ultra-zealous party loyalist after her doctor husband fled to the West, seemingly to unite with another woman. Her reaction to this trauma was to lose herself in socialist volunteer work. In fact, her heart attack and coma were actually brought on by seeing Alex in a demonstration against the Wall, but happily she has no memory of that. A lot of the movie consists of blissful recreations of the old East Berlin world either in narrated travelogue-style flashbacks or pale yellow-tinted shots of Alex’s makeshift fakery. There is a briskness and good humor about all this that is infectious and fun.

During mama’s coma Alex has acquired a girlfriend and a job selling satellite disks, and his sister, who also lives at home, has had a baby and started working at Burger King. Alex arranges to have his mother brought home but beforehand he restores her room to its pre-perestroika dinginess. He searches out containers for food products from the old days (all of them out of use now) to decant new replacements into; bullies family, friends, and neighbors into cooperating; and gets his coworker in the new job, an aspiring moviemaker, to edit old TV news footage and play news anchorman in concocted films they feed via VCR into a TV his mom watches – all to hide any glimpse of westernization. All this makes for much funny, frenetic, and affectionate action.

Alex’s ingenuity knows no bounds. When a huge Coca Cola poster appears out mom’s window, he and his pal concoct a news story showing that the beverage was really an East German invention and the West has just lost a patent struggle. They even alter video clips of the Wall's collapse so it looks like the Wessis - maddened by their own shallow capitalist lives and thirsting for socialism – are pouring into the East. Alex finds a cosmonaut retired into taxi driving and uses him as a fake new East German president in films for Christiane.

Basing the whole story on the need for family and the attempt to save a fragile, beatific mom was a wise move for the filmmakers. As Alex struggles toward manhood, his attempts to preserve a vanished world for just a little longer have poignancy. A resonant message of the film is that change, even when it brings material improvement and a fuller life, can be disturbing and hard to endure.

“Good bye, Lenin!” has many genuinely heartwarming moments in its first half. Towards the end the mother reveals to the son and daughter that their father really didn’t defect to join another woman. He just sought a better life and wanted them to join him; but mom was too afraid of change and hid his letters. The comedic elements are swamped by heaviness when Alex goes to find his dad, and the final segments seem clumsily thrown together (there were five writers on the project). The finale in which mom’s ashes are scattered over the reunited city by means of a toy rocket and fireworks is flashy but signals an abandonment of the profundities hinted at earlier, as well as of the wise humor.

Alex’s project reminds us that the communists in fact were always devotees of fake window dressing, mimicking a façade of prosperity and progress and hiding their inadequacies from visiting dignitaries and their own citizens. The Bulgarian-born artist Christo Javacheff, for example, got his start dressing up landscapes to deceive party bosses on tour. For all its sentimentality, which grows intense and pointless when the lost father is returned, “Good bye, Lenin!” has thought-provoking and perceptive elements at its core. It’s aware that Eastern Europe was itself a façade and that Alex’s loving recreations are a fake improvement on a fake thing – and thus that the Ostalgie East Germans may feel now is itself an illusion. As Alex puts it, summing up the film and perhaps defining its internal weaknesses, “The DDR I created for her became the one I would have wished for." By the same token, fake nostalgia can be a cover for wasted lives. Though this film may not quite know where to go with its ideas, it has them, and that’s more than can be said for most products on our capitalist market.


Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian has a neat summary.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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