Good Bye, Lenin! (Germany, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's certainly no shortage of rich threads woven into the tapestry of Good Bye, Lenin! Wolfgang Becker's movie (produced by Stefan Arndt, who has been involved in everything by Tom Tykwer, from Run Lola Run to Heaven) offers the touching story of a devoted son's sacrifice for his mother, albeit with a couple of inventive twists. The story confronts the perversion of perception and the manipulation of reality. And, as if that isn't heady enough material, it tackles the confusing national identity crisis suffered by Germans when the Berlin Wall came down. Like twins reunited after a long separation, there was an awkward re-acclimation process that few films are interested in exploring. (Perhaps it takes a German filmmaker to do the issue justice, or perhaps to even recognize it at all.)

In the 1960s, there was a small but vocal group of people who believed that NASA's space program was a sham. (See Capricorn One.) No men were actually going to the moon - everything we saw on television, including Neil Armstrong's famous walk, was happening in a Hollywood studio dressed up to look like the moon, and the astronauts were actors. In Good Bye, Lenin!, a character perpetrates a similar hoax, although not on the same scale and for altruistic reasons. But the film asks all sorts of unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions about how much right one person has to define the reality of another. Becker makes cogent arguments for both sides of the issue, then leaves it to us to determine the verdict. His purpose is to tell a story, not to judge the characters.

It's 1989 and Berlin is in turmoil. Hoenicker's iron fist, gloved by the Stasi, is beginning to lose its grip. East Berliners are heading west in droves, bleeding out through Hungary. Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl) is the loyal and obedient son of Christiane Kerner (Kathrin Sass), an activist who believes in the virtues of socialism. When she sees her son marching in an anti-government protest, she suffers a heart attack and ends up in a coma. It's mid-1990 before she awakens, and much has changed. Her daughter, Ariane (Maria Simon) has a new boyfriend, Rainer (Alexander Beyer), and Alex has fallen in love with Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), one of Christiane's nurses. But those small human dramas are insignificant compared to what has happened outside: the Wall is down and the wound dividing East from West is healing.

Christiane has a weak heart and her doctor warns that any shock could kill her. Alex decides that he has to hide the fall of the Wall from his mother, so he concocts a fake world in which Hoenicker is still in power and socialism remains potent. With the help of a would-be filmmaker friend, Denis (Florian Lukas), he creates mock newscasts. The deeper Alex gets into his fictional world, the more convinced his girlfriend and sister are that he's doing the wrong thing, but Alex will not be dissuaded. He believes that his actions are saving his mother. But what happens when she is well enough to get out of bed and begin to explore the world outside of her room?

What Alex does for Christiane is not the only example of reality manipulation. Another character has also promulgated a big lie. When this is revealed, it touches a number of lives, and feeds into Alex's fantasy world. Of course, one wonders from the beginning whether Christiane suspects her son is up to something, but, since she is weak and bedridden, she has no choice but to trust him. What we have to determine (and our response to it will decide how kindly we think of Alex) is whether or not his actions are betraying her trust. Does she have the right to know, even if it kills her? Oddly enough, this is the same question that The Matrix asks. (I will probably be the only critic who finds a way to compare Good Bye, Lenin! to The Matrix.)

Lest I make the movie sound too somber, I should mention that Becker directs with a deft touch. Good Bye, Lenin! is filled with many lightly comedic moments, and, in its development of the tender relationship between Alex and Lara, offers a portion of romance (although the film should not be confused with a romantic comedy). The actors all do fine jobs, especially Daniel Brühl, who exhibits escalating pent-up stress as Alex's fabricated world spins out of control, and Kathrin Sass, whose Christiane hides a secret or two.

Perhaps most interesting to the non-German viewer is the exposure Becker provides of the social and political currents that were in force during that period. It is not a step-by-step chronicle of German reunification, but it gives a perspective of the time. It's a bonus that this comes as part of an engrossing and well told story. Good Bye, Lenin! is unquestionably worth the price of admission.

Good Bye, Lenin! (Germany, 2003)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2004-02-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: English subtitled German
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1