Pro-democracy riots and cheering mobs of happy Germans are the images most often associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Director Wolfgang Becker aims to capture a unique aspect of the event in his critically acclaimed film Goodbye, Lenin!, by depicting the effects of German reunification on everyday people. The most commercially successful German film in history, its theme echoes that of an earlier German epic, Das Versprechen (The Promise), but Becker steers Goodbye Lenin! far away from that film’s largely stifled emotions.
The film centers on the experience of young East Berliner Alex Kerner, played by wide-eyed 24-year-old Daniel Brühl. After fainting during the Berlin riots, Alex’s mother (Katrin Sass) enters a deep coma for several months. As she recovers slowly, Alex enters into a relationship with her nurse Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), a humbly beautiful and patient woman. Upon his mother’s release, the doctor cautions Alex that he must insulate her from any shocks, because a stressful event could kill her. Since his mother was fiercely loyal to the idealism of the DDR, Alex makes it his goal to keep her from finding out about the dramatic political changes through which she slept.
This deception provides the comic meat of the film, with Alex employing a series of ever more ridiculous ruses to convince his mother that nothing’s changed. When Alex starts working for a West German TV company he becomes friends with his co-worker Denis (Florian Lukas), a budding filmmaker with grandiose dreams of success. In one hilarious scene, he shows Alex a wedding video he made in which he imitates a famous cut from 2001. When Alex’s mother wants to watch television, Alex and Denis film hours of fake news footage to reassure her that change is not coming too quickly into her comfortable world. When she notices a banner for Coca-Cola being hung on a nearby building, Alex, barely missing a beat, explains that a recent discovery has proven the socialist origins of Coca-Cola (backed by news footage, again, courtesy of Denis).
However, Brecker does not use his ample talent solely for humor’s sake. Goodbye, Lenin! is dotted with distilled illustrations of the many facets of the reunification, some of which shine much brighter than others. When Alex and Lara look for a place to live together, they soon realize that mass exodus to the West has turned East Berlin into a veritable ghost town of cast-off responsibilities and forgotten dreams. In one powerful scene, the two of them prance through an abandoned apartment, a lavishly appointed mausoleum that is as empty as the socialist dream in 1990. A confrontation with a bank teller about Alex’s fortune in East German marks, rendered worthless a week earlier by the West-loving banks, is a more bitter example of the same phenomenon. The cold power of capitalism has totally subsumed an unprepared society, much as it continues to do throughout the Third World.
Moments like this show a nuanced view of the much hailed “fall of communism,” and challenge the widely held notion that the arrival of capitalism brought only good to East Germany. Becker does not fall into the trap of romanticizing the past at the expense of historical fact; his characters cherish their new conveniences and freedom of expression, and don’t miss the panoptic party structure of socialism. The movie does, however, shed light on the complex (and sudden) transformation of German life that resulted from the fall of the Wall.
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