For many, their first exposure to Spanish-German actor Daniel Brühl was in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, or even more recently in 2013’s Rush. However, Brühl has been acting since the beginning of the new millennium, and 2003 saw him shine as Alex Kerner in the German film Good Bye Lenin!. The film takes place in East Berlin, just before and shortly after the reunification of Germany. Though the film’s title suggests a strong political commentary, the film’s primary focus is the relationship between Alex and his mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass). Alex is in his twenties, at ‘the height of [his] masculine allure’ and dissatisfied enough with the GDR (German Democrat Republic; referred to as the DDR in the film) to go to a protest, but not enough to be considered an activist. Christiane, on the other hand, has been ‘married to our socialist fatherland’ ever since her husband escaped to the West. On seeing her son and others being beaten at the protest, Christiane has a heart attack and consequently falls into a coma. When she unexpectedly wakes up 8 months later, the wall has fallen, and Alex must protect her from the shock of this information.
Though the plot sounds ridiculous, the film gets away with it for a number of reasons. The first is that the other characters are just as sceptical of Alex’s elaborate plan as the audience would be. The doctors try to dissuade Alex from taking his mother home, and his sister reminds him that Christiane is most likely too frail to recover. Director Wolfgang Becker and screenwriter Bernd Lichtenberg justify Alex’s actions through excellent and subtle characterisation. In the prologue Alex is presented as a sensitive and space-obsessed child and, perhaps more importantly, he has ‘lost’ his mother before – following her husband’s disappearance, which caused Christiane to suffer from a nervous breakdown. Being sensitive makes Alex overreact; being obsessed with space, he is a dreamer; and having lost his mother before, he’s scared of losing her, but he also knows that she can come back.
Though the politics aren’t the heart of the story, they are very present, and serve to help ground the film. In the context of the socialist state, Alex’s efforts mirror that of the government. Alex filters and fabricates the news in order to prevent his mother from finding out the truth, much in the same way the government controlled the information its population received. Though undeniably obsessive, Alex’s efforts support the idea that sometimes lying and hiding is part of caring. Indeed, in his truth-twisting, Alex is able to reflect that the image of the GDR he had created ‘increasingly became the one I might have wished for’, working an important political commentary into the film.
Where 2006’s The Lives of Others presented the GDR solely as corrupt and oppressive, Good Bye Lenin! gives time to the socialist dream, and in doing so explains how such a regime might be a good idea, not only from Alex’s created image of the GDR, but also from Christiane’s support. Christiane is presented as a loving and engaged mother, and her support of the socialist state doesn’t initially seem to make sense. How can such a woman support an oppressive regime? For Christiane, her country is people-focused; it is a haven for those for who ‘realise that cars, video recorders and TVs are not everything,’ which, in a country where you had to wait years to get a car, was particularly true. Christiane’s perspective is one not often heard in the West, and though it is idealised, one could argue that it is an important view for the many who think socialism is an inherently dirty word to hear. This is what makes Good Bye Lenin! more than just a ‘dramedy’. The film has a good history and politics lesson woven into the plot, and as a good lesson should, it presents both ‘the good’, or perhaps rather ‘the ideal‘, and ‘the bad’.
Good Bye Lenin! is also a great example of balance with regards to creating tone; it is both funny and serious. Though some of the humour comes from snappy dialogue, the moments of physical comedy are admirable. Such moments include when Alex breaks his comatose mother’s drip while trying to ogle the nurses; the doctor’s CPR lesson; and when Alex’s nurse girlfriend leaves him to struggle in the plaster casts she’d practiced putting on him. Collectively, the gags are unnecessary plot-wise, but they add to the film’s texture. Other moments of humour are already layered in themselves, being more darkly humorous. In his first trip to the West, Alex stands with a group of other East Germans stunned by a garish porn video; there’s the fact that the first company to take advantage of the new market was, of course, Coca-Cola; not to mention Alex’s sister ditching her university studies to take up a job at Burger King.
Good Bye Lenin! is a pleasure to watch, even if you don’t usually have time for foreign-language films. For those interested in screenwriting and historical films, Good Bye Lenin! is absolutely worth the time. As mentioned, the film has great characterisation and internal logic. Additionally, its treatment of historical information by tying it in with a relatable small family story show how the wider political scene affects normal people as well as concisely and enjoyably recounting an important moment in recent history.