Goodbye Angst; Hello Coca-Cola
If humor is the beginning of healing, then Good Bye, Lenin! might be the beginning of healthy, non-Nazi-obsessed German cinema. Writing in the March 8 New Yorker, David Denby observes that the comatose state of Party member and mom Christiane Kerner (Katrin Saß) is a not-so-subtle metaphor for East Germany itself, and that "beneath the slapstick surface lies a sombre German heart: the point of the fable is that Communism in Germany was always an ersatz reality." Yet for me, the political in Wolfgang Becker's whimsical film is the metaphor for the personal. Good Bye, Lenin! isn't about what was so much as it is about what might have been.
Dotted with ironic voiceover observations (what you see doesn't always jibe with what you hear) from Christiane's son, Alex (Daniel Brühl), the film opens in Alexanderplatz on August 26, 1978, with young Alex and his sister Ariane glued to the TV as Sigmund Jähn (Stefan Walz) becomes the first German into space while Party tough guys badger Christiane as to the whereabouts of husband Robert (Burghart Klaußner), who hasn't returned from his latest trip to the West. Robert never does come back, whereupon Christiane marries herself to the Socialist fatherland. Flash-forward 11 years: a disgruntled Alex, his dreams of emulating his hero Sigmund just a vapor trail in the Communist cosmos, goes out in support of what he describes as "the right to go for walks without a Wall getting in the way," and when Christiane, who's on her way to the Palast der Republik to attend the DDR's 40th-birthday party, sees him being clubbed and hauled away by the police, she suffers a heart attack and lapses into a coma. By the time she wakes up, eight months later, the Wall has come down and Alex has found a girlfriend, Soviet student nurse Lara (Chulpan Khamatova). Christiane's all right with the girlfriend, but the doctors warn Alex that the shock of discovering that her beloved DDR has died could kill her as well. So Alex, Lara, and Ariane (Maria Simon), who's quit studying cultural history to work at Burger King, take her home and re-create East Germany there, and when she insists on watching TV, Alex gets his friend Denis (Florian Lukas) to produce phony newscasts reassuring her that all's right with Erich Honecker and the world.
It's hilarious, of course, to see Alex scrounging for the tacky East German clothing (Ariane draws the line at making her baby wear plastic diapers) and unappetizing foodstuffs (Mocha Fix Gold coffee, Tempo beans, Globus green peas) that no one else wants, and Denis's newscasts are a thing of creative beauty as they "explain" the presence of Coca-Cola (Christiane having spotted a huge sign outside her window) and Volkswagens in the East. (It's amazing how neatly real-life footage of East Berliners pouring over the Wall goes with a voiceover describing them as West Berliners sick of the capitalist rat race.) Becker ties it all together by having Alex run into now-cab-driver Jähn and set him up, on Denis's final newscast, as the new president of a DDR that far from walling the rest of the world out wants to invite it in.
The irony is that though Alex never conquers outer space, he becomes a master of inner space, envisioning in his mind a kinder, gentler DDR and creating it for his mother. The personal is often painful: Ariane isn't as enthusiastic as Alex about taking care of mom; her Burger King-boss boyfriend, Rainer (Alexander Beyer), seems like a loser (but he does pay the rent); and when, like East and West Germany, Christiane and Robert are reunited, it's in an hour-long conversation that we don't get to hear. Daniel Brühl's boyish Alex embodies the personal (he gets more excited after stumbling upon a jar of Spreewald pickles -- his mother's favorite -- than he does when Germany wins the World Cup), but it's Katrin Saß's Christiane who embodies his imagined DDR: she's the one without walls, the one who invites everybody else in. It's fitting that in the end, she goes up in a rocket, East Germany's ambassador to the rest of the universe.