Good Bye, Lenin! takes a ‘semi-comic’ look at pre- and post-Cold War Germany
Good Bye, Lenin! may sound dauntingly Germanocentric. After all, it’s about the semi-comic tribulations of a dimly dysfunctional East German family cast into a pathetic sort of limbo in the period of the Berlin Wall’s demise. Ironic allusions to details of East German life circa 1988 abound, but the story Wolfgang Becker and co-writer Bernd Lichtenberg have concocted rises above the cultural specifics in ways that have successfully engaged audiences far from Germany.
At the heart of the matter is Alex (Daniel Bruhl), the devoted and charmingly innocent son of a fiercely socialist single mom (Kathrin Sass) who has a heart attack and lapses into a coma just as the German reunification movement is gathering momentum. Her coma lasts eight months, by which time East Germany is doggedly pursuing westernization and a capitalist makeover. (Alex is selling satellite dishes and his sister Ariane—played by Maria Simon—is working at Burger King.)
But when Mom comes out of the coma, the doctors warn that the next severe shock could be fatal, and the intrepid, wide-eyed Alex immediately launches a campaign to preserve the illusion that her beloved socialist state is still very much in place and even thriving (Alex contrives to doctor TV footage and replays it through fake broadcasts to indicate that all those youths pouring through the gaps in the Wall are West Germans crossing over after having seen the error of their capitalist ways).
Alex’s quixotic efforts to maintain the illusion of a vanished (and equally illusory) world make for a droll sort of situation comedy in a political/historical mode. But Becker and Lichtenberg spin us beyond that to something even more moving and ironic—as the charade inevitably begins to wear thin, mother Christiane begins confessing long-hidden deceptions of her own, including some having to do with the kids’ long-absent father. And the sardonic comedy of historical facades morphs into a tender and generous-spirited comedy drama that opens old wounds and begins healing them at the same time.
At bottom, Good Bye, Lenin! is a kind of gentle Oedipal comedy in which Alex’s invented socialist motherland has a greater and more haunting reality than the fallacious socialist fatherland that dealt in less benign illusions.