Friday, 2 March 2012

Good Bye Lenin!

Good Bye Lenin! is a celebration of nostalgia, and gives a warm farewell to the socialist East Germany. It does this in good humour, with some clever takes on actual historical events, wrapped up in a very human story about a boy who deeply cares for his mother.

It's October 1989. Germany has been split in two - to the West democracy and capitalism reign, while the East remains under communism. But change is coming; in East Germany, the GDR is beginning to crumble, as its citizens yearn for the freedom of life on the other side. While young Alex Kerner is arrested in a student protest, he catches sight of his mother as she collapses to the ground. Christiane - the mother - has been 'married to the fatherland' since her husband escaped from it years ago. She lives and breathes socialism, and retreats into a coma for 8 months at the shock of seeing her son at the event.

Fact can be stranger than fiction though - in the course of those 8 months, the Berlin wall is destroyed, socialism falls, and East Germany becomes Westernised. When Christiane awakens miraculously, the doctors warn Alex that any kind of shock could set off another heart attack... including the revelation that her entire world has been revolutionised in her absence. So begins an extended charade, with Alex trying to hide the truth from his bedridden mother. From the clothes he wears, to the brand of pickles she eats, he meticulously reconstructs her world to be as it was less than a year ago - a mammoth task, given how fast things changed!

(The following may contain spoilers)

The film takes a lighthearted approach to what could be a very grave subject. It is a sophisticated comedy, with some great nudges at German and world history, as well as local in-jokes (which mostly fly over my head), and laugh out loud moments. At the films conclusion, Alex's mother dies, but it doesn't feel sad, or shocking, or hopeless. The ending matches the comedic tone of the rest of the film by making the mothers death uplifting - still dramatically weighty, but not weighing down the film in tone.

As I watched it, I saw Alex's task become more extravagant, and more ludicrous, and I thought back to (of all things) Veggie Tales. Specifically The fib from outer space, which features an alien who grows the more Junior lies to his Dad. The message seems at first similar: one small lie grows and grows until it's out of control; the only way to stop it is to tell the truth. Deception is certainly a running theme in this movie (Alex's charade, and his mothers), but it's a tad more nuanced than a simple morality message. Alex's mother eventually learns of his charade... but says nothing about it. In the final news broadcast, she just stares at him in loving admiration; that he would go to such lengths for her sake. And at what point were his actions born out of anything but concern for his mother? Well, perhaps when he takes the facade too far, and begins to believe - or want to believe - in it himself. Mother dies, and Alex thinks she never knew. This makes it possible for him to move on, and begin a new life with his girlfriend.

This movie is about the past - celebrating the best bits of East Germany, and seeing them off in a firework. Or more broadly, about the truth and lies of nostalgia. It's about what happens when we spend all our time living in the past; it keeps us bedridden and stagnant. We look back on the past as if it were some golden time, but we forget the parts that made it painful. It is good to celebrate the past, but there comes a time when we need to look forward, or else just sit still and die.