Original release: February 13th, 2003
Running time: 121 minutes
Country of origin: Germany
Original language: German
Director: Wolfgang Becker
Writers: Wolfgang Becker, Bernd Lichtenberg
Cast: Daniel Brühl, Katrin Saß, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon, Alexander Beyer
I don’t know when it happened really. There wasn’t an exact moment when I realised how I felt about Germany and its history, and specifically its GDR period. I can only attribute it to the time I spent living in Berlin and the relationships I formed there with friends who were East Germans, and maybe it was because I didn’t feel any connection to my own national identity – having had somewhat of a nomadic existence up until that point – that I ended up unconsciously adopting East Germany as my own experience too – despite having not lived there while it existed.
Established by the Soviet Union in 1949 as a socialist state out of the Soviet zone of occupied Germany, the German Democratic Republic bordered Czechoslovakia to the south, West Germany to the south and west, Poland to the east, and the Baltic Sea to the north. While it had its own currency and was sectioned off from the rest of Germany by the imposing Berlin Wall that was heavily guarded at all times with watchtowers and checkpoints, the GDR eventually established its own way of life, it’s own culture and its own history that was unique to anywhere else at that time.
Released shortly after I moved back to the UK, Good Bye, Lenin! was a film that recalled the turbulent period of East Berliners lives when the Wall came down in October 1989 and how some embraced the changes that came with reunification, while others struggled to say goodbye to socialism and Lenin. Told with elements of comedy and tragedy, it was a film I instantly fell in love with as it gave me a taste of what being there at that time must’ve been like.
Its story begins in October 1989 and is centred on Alex (Daniel Brühl) who lives with his sister, Ariane (Maria Simon), his mother, Christiane (Katrin Saß), and Ariane’s infant daughter, Paula. After Alex’s father deflected to the West in 1978, his mother became a strong supporter of the GDR, but Alex remains staunchly anti-government and on the night of October 7th he joins a demonstration which erupts into a riot. Just at the moment Alex is being arrested, Christiane sees him from other side and with the shock she collapses with a heart attack which leaves her in a coma for eight months.
In the time the Berlin Wall falls and with it arrives capitalism in East Berlin. During this time as well Alex begins a relationship with a young nurse Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) and takes up a new job with aspiring filmmaker and West Berlin resident Denis Domaschke (Florian Lukas) to install satellite dishes. When Christiane wakes from her coma, the world as she knew it has changed but fearing the shock might bring on another heart attack Alex does everything he can think of to maintain the illusion that the GDR is still very much alive.
This includes changing the décor in their apartment back to how it was it before, wearing former GDR clothes and stocking up on what’s now vintage brand of foods. As the charade starts to become more and more complicated, Alex resorts to elaborate ways to protect his mother from the truth and even ropes in Denis to help him film fake news reports they can play back on VHS tapes without Christiane realising it’s not a live television broadcast. However, the cat’s almost let out of the bag when she sees a gigantic Coca-Cola advertisement banner unfurling on a building outside the apartment!
As time passes, Christiane’s health begins to improve and she no longer needs to remain bed-ridden, leaving Alex, and us, with the growing possibility that eventually she’s going to find out the truth if she goes outside. Good Bye, Lenin!’s story is one that’s deeply affecting from start to finish and this because its wonderful writing, beautiful performances by its lead cast and an exquisite score that helps us feel these moments as if they’re our own memories passing us by with each frame.
Having heard so many first hand accounts of what life really was like during this time in East Germany, I can’t help but feel extremely moved when I see those scenes of the Wall coming down, or of Christiane watching in disbelief as a statue of Lenin is being flown away by Mi 8 helicopter and seemingly reaches out to her…It’s a scene which lovingly recalls a Lenin statue being carried away in Kieślowski’s The Double Life Of Véronique (1991) and the flying Jesus in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), making Good Bye, Lenin! a film that’s not only aware of its own historical importance, but also cinema’s.
While the fall of the GDR resulted in a new age of capitalism for its former residents, one of the wonderful things about Good Bye, Lenin! is that Becker recognised that freedom was not for everyone and I’m sure that even after all these years the old system is still alive and well in the hearts, minds and possibly even the homes of a few families.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .