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Good Bye Lenin!


SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | December 18, 2010 12:10
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 Year of Release: 2003
Cast: Daniel Brühl, Katrin Saß, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon, Florian Lukas & Alex Beyer
Director: Wolfgang Becker
Writer: Bernd Lichtenberg, Wolfgang Becker
Running Time: 121 min
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

The year is 1989 and East Germany (GDR) is in tumult. Hoenicker's iron fist, gloved by the Stasi, has started to unravel. East Berliners are flying west in waves as Berlin feels the heat. This flux becomes the set for Wolfgang Becker's fabulous political drama Good Bye Lenin!

The movie revolves around Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl) the acquiescent son and Christiane Kerner (Kathrin Sass), an activist, who trusts the moral excellence of socialism. Roughly around the same time in 1978, Sigmund Jahn becomes the first cosmonaut from the GDR to travel in a Soviet Soyuz space mission, mother Christiane learns her doctor hubby has defected to West Germany. Dedicating herself to the Communist cause with renewed energy following eight weeks of institutionalization for depression, she duteously brings up her children Alex and Ariane (Maria Simon) under the principles of the socialist regime. Christiane somehow manages to wash away her guilt that emancipates from the defection of her husband.

The scene cuts to the 1989 and her children are already grown ups. When she witnesses her son marching in an anti-regime protest, she suffers an attack and slips into coma. When she wakes up, it is already mid-1990, and things have changed dramatically. Her daughter has a new partner, Rainer, and Alex has fallen in love with Lara (Chulpan Khamatova). However, these modest human dramas are trivial compared to what has changed on the macro level: the Berlin Wall has been brought down and the lesion dividing the East from the West appears to be healing.

Christiane wakes up with a feeble heart and her doctor warns that any shock, mental or physical, could instantly take her life. Alex throws a newspaper with a frontage headline about the 'Fall' in front of the doctor and asks what he thought about this shock? Consequently, he makes up his mind that he has to conceal the fall of the Wall from his mother, so he fixes and concocts a phoney world in which Hoenicker is still ruling and socialism remains strong. With the help of an aspiring filmmaker friend, Denis (Florian Lukas), he recreates mock news broadcasts. As he weaves one story after another to convince the mother that the GDR is intact, his girlfriend and sister are convinced that he's doing the incorrect thing, but Alex will not be deterred. He believes that his actions are saving his mother. But surely his mother will come to know about his drama when she will recover or ventures outside her room? Watch the movie.

Though surely much is lost on western viewers or, frankly, even younger Germans, the troubles that originate when one system gives way to another are distressingly well-defined. Alex and his mother are trying to stick to their national identity. "Sure, the old way was lousy, but at least we were East Germans--now what are we?" asks director Becker. The most heartening part about the film is that it never gets dragged in the politics of the situation, focusing rather on the ad hominem ramifications of national 'Sturm und Drang'. Alex protection of his mother also provides him a cushion to absorb the shocking change.

The film has come at a time when a rise of nostalgia -- called Ostalgie -- for life before merger has swept Germany. Germans who were born in pre-unification era are fondly restoring the shabby looking Trabi cars which East Germans drove under Communist rule and throwing theme parties in which people come dressed up in vintage Communist Youth Movement uniforms and Stasi suits.

But Good Bye Lenin! Also delves into the realpolitik behind the Ostalgie movement, and the feeling that capitalism hasn't been an entirely good thing to happen to Germany: In one quick montage, Becker symbolizes the transformation by showing porn and sex shops, fast food joints and the quintessential and ever-larger Coke Lorries on the Berlin streets. "Overnight," Alex says, with a hint of lament, "our drab corner store had become a gaudy consumer paradise."

Similarly, in one of the movie's most persuasive scenes, Alex's sister tells him of seeing their father where she works. "What did you say?" he asks. “‘Enjoy your meal and thank you for choosing Burger King,' " she replies dazedly. The very fact that Alex and his sister, who were respectively studying engineering and economics, end up as Dish-antenna operator and a dispenser at
Burger King makes us stop and ponder. This is not entirely “black and white”—West good, East bad.

The film also achieves in managing to show the characters of GDR, to some degree, as multifaceted personalities. Christiane is an ardent believer of Communism—which she largely interprets as a way for protecting the little person, humanizing the common man—but she is anything but a senseless adherent of the bureaucracy. Her ex-boss, who has turned up an alcoholic after losing his job as a principal at the school, post unification, tells Alex, “We were all valuable people then.” Touché.

It will strike you as a surprise that the director, Wolfgang Becker, and writer Bernd Lichtenberg were both born in West Germany. It is to their acclaim that they have been able to conceive and mount a story set in East Germany that is both amusing and touching, without falling back to naive caricatures, a la Hollywood, or nauseating melodrama.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the blog are that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Sunday Indian)
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017