Good Bye, Lenin
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It is 1989 and Communism is crumbling everywhere except in the heart and mind of Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass), a middle-aged Berlin resident who has a picture of Che Guevara on her bedroom wall and is fiercely loyal to party leader Erich Honecker.
Her son Alex (Daniel Brühl, who played the schizophrenic youth in the powerful "White Sound") and daughter Ariane (Maria Simon) are typical young Berliners. They have little use for ideology and yearn for the material goods and personal liberty of the West. Despite their differences with their mother, they love her deeply and would do anything to make her happy.
One night as Christiane is heading toward a party celebration, she happens upon a police crackdown on anti-Communist protestors, including her son who is being thrown into the back of a truck in handcuffs. This sight causes her to collapse on the street with a heart attack. She is brought to a hospital in a coma.
When Alex visits the hospital, the doctor tells him that
there is no guarantee that she will ever awake from the coma. If she does, the
important thing is to prevent any shocks to her psyche since another heart
attack would prove fatal. For the next eight months, as Christiane
lays motionless in her hospital bed, everything changes around her. The Berlin
Wall collapses, the two
Finally Christiane regains consciousness but in a weakened state. In a ploy that constitutes the dramatic tension of the film and its underlying political and social theme, Alex resolves to create an artificial environment in her bedroom back at home that is faithful to the Communist past. After elaborately preparing the bedroom with the clunky furniture and Stalinoid photos they had discarded, they spirit her from the hospital making sure that the ambulance attendants stay mum about the political sea change.
Alex, who has befriended a co-worker and aspiring video artist at a Western satellite-dish company (his former employer has gone bankrupt, like almost all "Ostie" firms), relies on him to assemble archival news programs from the Communist past that they play for Christiane on a concealed VCR. The joke is that it really doesn't matter, since the "news" consists mainly of reports about dissatisfaction in the West with unemployment, drug addiction and other social problems.
This joke is part of an ensemble of comic situations as Alex goes to greater and greater lengths to sustain the illusion that Communism is still in power. He searches desperately for consumer goods from the past that apparently not only appeal to his mother, but to other elderly East Berliners who feel swamped by Western products that are alien to their culture. Although the word "globalization" is not mentioned once in the film, an astute member of the audience might think of the French farmer José Bové who vandalized a Macdonalds for its encroachments on native cuisine and values.
As Alex ventures out into the brave new world of capitalism,
he begins to question the changes. For example, when he brings his mother's
In the final scene of the film, as his mother is approaching
death, he stages one last ruse that summarizes the sensibility of Wolfgang Becker,
the film's director and co-author (written with Bernd Lichtenberg). After she
has discovered traces of the West during an unsupervised stroll in her
neighborhood (Coca-Cola signs, BMW's, etc.), they convince her that immigrants
However, the speech does not consist of Stalinist jargon. Instead it is a heartfelt plea for an egalitarian society that is based on human need rather than private profit. Obviously written by Alex, it is a sign of his final reconciliation with his mother on both familial and philosophical grounds.
"The museum is just a few rooms, mostly on the second
floor of a former day-care center, but it holds 70,000 to 80,000 objects from
This is not just about nostalgia for chintzy objects that might be regarded as a German version of "camp". It is also about a growing disenchantment with the new capitalist world that they had assumed would be a kind of utopia:
"Ostalgie is complicated, made up of various ingredients. One is clearly the disillusionment felt by many former Easterners over German reunification, which took place 13 years ago. Unemployment these days is commonly 25 percent in regions like Eisenhüttenstadt. Rents are no longer subsidized. Doctor visits cost money. People can be fired. In addition, as Andreas Ludwig, the West German scholar of urban history who started the museum a few years ago, noted, even capitalist products break down or are shabby and schlocky."
It would be too much to expect the New York Times to
acknowledge what is truly driving "Ostalgie".
It is the memory of Easterners that the old system guaranteed cheap rents, a
job, medical care and low crime. With "globalization" turning most of
the planet into an ever more ruthless competition for disappearing jobs, such a
past might retain some appeal. Indeed, a Lexis-Nexis search on "
The true story of
And what did the Soviets seek? Nothing but what had already
been hammered out at
When the West reneged on all this, the Soviets began to crack down in the East. The rest is history.
(Good Bye, Lenin is scheduled to open in NY theaters at the end of February. It was the winner of the Best European Film at the Berlin Film Festival.)