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Posts Tagged ‘Good Bye Lenin!’

There was a time, nearly fifteen years ago, when I basically just got burned out as far as going to the cinema was concerned: catching every significant new release started to feel like a burden, I was acutely aware of the demands I was making on the people close to me in terms of constantly asking for lifts to and from the multiplex, and there were some other changes to the cinemas themselves which made it all seem rather less appealing. So I cut back drastically for the best part of a year, only seeing things I was really interested in. As a result there are some films which I recall seeing the trailers for multiple times, and remembering thinking ‘hmmm, that looks like it has potential’ about, which I never ended up going to see.

Another cutback looms, though for slightly different reasons: I am off to where the films are all dubbed into a foreign language for a couple of months, and long experience has taught me this is never the best way to meet a new movie. Needless to say I will be taking with me (ahem) a large trunk filled with DVDs to while away the quiet moments, and when I asked for suggestions as to what to put in the trunk, one of the suggestions was Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! (even though, given my destination, a film entitled Hello Again Putin! might be slightly more appropriate) – this was one of the films that just missed the cut back in 2004, mainly due to it only getting a very limited release in my area (subtitled films always had a hard time in Lancashire – at one point, if you rang up to book tickets for one, the person on the other end would ask you if you were sure you knew what you were doing).

(Lest you be wondering, yes, it apparently is definitely called Good Bye Lenin!, rather than the Goodbye Lenin! or even Good-bye Lenin! you might expect. Just another sign of a film made by non-native speakers of English, I suppose, along with the fact that the subtitles on the DVD had rather more spelling mistakes than you might expect. What can I say, I’m never off-duty.)

So, anyway, I decided to watch this particular film before my actual foreign trip got started (eight days and counting). Mostly set in 1989 and 1990, it concerns a young man named Alex (Daniel Bruhl) and his family, who as the film opens are resident in East Berlin. Alex’s father apparently abandoned them and fled to the west some years earlier, and as a reaction to this his mother (Katrin Sass) has become a zealous true believer in the communist system. His sister (Maria Simon) is more pragmatic.

Alex himself is no fan of communism and opts to take part in a public protest one night, with two very significant consequences: firstly, he meets a rather nice young Russian nurse (Chulpan Khamatova) with whom he goes on to have a relationship, and secondly (and perhaps more importantly) the sight of him being arrested by the police and bundled into the back of a truck is enough to give his mother a severe heart attack. Poor medical attention results in her being in a coma for eight months, during which time the Wall comes down and the communist government collapses. Alex is warned by the doctors that his mother’s health is fragile and she should be spared any shocks or excitement – which will be tricky, in the circumstances.

So Alex embarks on a systematic programme of benevolent deception, getting rid of all the post-communist things that are cluttering their apartment and doing everything he can to maintain the illusion that nothing has changed in East Germany. Initially this just takes the form of transferring new food into old packaging, but it inevitably becomes more and more elaborate as time goes on. Can Alex keep his mother in the dark, even as the reunification of Germany approaches? And is he really acting for the best in deceiving her like this?

For a long time I was aware of Good Bye Lenin! and eventually came to think of it as ‘the Daniel Bruhl movie’, this being the film that really brought the actor to international attention: he has gone on to make contributions of various sizes to films as diverse as The Bourne Ultimatum, Rush, Captain America: Civil War and Alone in Berlin, to name only a handful. I’ve always found him to be an extremely watchable actor, and that’s the case here, too – he carries the movie with great aplomb, without ever doing anything too flashy or otherwise being caught acting.

That said, Good Bye Lenin! is a very accomplished film in many ways. The advertising for the film perhaps over-emphasises the comic elements of the plot, stressing the absurdist comedy of Alex trying to maintain the illusion of communism’s survival. There are indeed some very funny moments arising from this – at one point, Alex makes a cheery speech to his mother about time going by, but nothing really changing, totally oblivious to the Coca-Cola advert slowly unfurling in the window behind him – and there’s something quite fascinating about the alternate history he is forced to develop to explain all the changes happening in the city (Coca-Cola is finally acknowledged as an invention of socialism, while an economic crisis in the west has flooded the eastern bloc countries with refugees seeking a better life). Much of the humour is very understated and ironic, particularly Alex’s dry voice-over (at one point he explains how he embarked on his first mission to explore western culture, which plays over a scene of him visiting a sex shop in the west).

However, the film is never very far from a more serious moment, as perhaps befits this kind of subject matter. The film is really about the partition of Germany, and the consequences of its reunification, with the division of Alex’s own family and the heartbreak arising from this a metaphor for the divided country. And it’s very hard to escape the impression that the film is, on some level, motivated by nostalgia for some aspects of life in the old East Germany – it seems rather disdainful of the garish consumerism that filled the void left by the collapse of communism, especially famous brands like Coke and Burger King. Towards the end one of Alex’s faked TV broadcasts speaks of the westerners fleeing their materialistic lives, coming to eastern Europe in hope of something better, and you can almost imagine something like that happening.

I suppose you could argue that the film’s not-unsympathetic depiction of life under communism is part and parcel of the story, which hinges upon Alex’s mother and her love for the old system – the film views it with the same rose-tinted spectacles that she does. In the end the film stays ambivalent about the morality of the deception Alex perpetrates, as it does seem to keep his mother happy. Maybe the communist system was based on another deception, but it was not without its own kind of optimism.

In the end this is a thoughtful film, with moments of seriousness as well as humour, clearly made by people who know their cinema (there are a couple of cheerfully brazen raids on Kubrick, for instance). I wonder if perhaps you have to be German to really appreciate the emotional core of the picture, for it certainly feels like a film made in a country still trying to deal with its own recent history, but for everyone else this is still a well-made, entertaining, moving film.

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