Recommended Viewing Situation:
Sat on the most tasteless capitalist furniture you can find, eating McDonalds and drinking Coca-Cola.
Running Time: 121 minutes.
Format: 35mm Kodak film.
Director: Wolfgang Becker.
Writer: Bernd Lichtenberg.
Cinematographer: Martin Kukula.
Awards: Golden Globes – Best Foreign Language Film (Nominated); BAFTA – Best Film not in the English Language (Nominated).
Sometimes stories are resonant because they are timely exposures of the current era, and sometimes because they are timeless, a universal expression of human values. When I revisited Goodbye, Lenin! (2003), Wolfgang Becker’s German-language film, I was expecting a darkly comic and judicious reminder of the fall of the Berlin Wall. What I realised I was watching, however, was an often touching story of a man desperately trying to keep his family together against the backdrop of a complex political situation, with the country they live in deeply divided, both literally and figuratively. Filmed in 2003, but set during the reunification of Germany, Becker opts for a slight comic distance from his subjects, treating both East and West Germany with rose-tinted nostalgia to present both sides as flawed, but ultimately similar. As East German food products slowly fade from the shelves to be replaced with gaudy West German options, the film gently accepts how a desire to return to the past, with its defined rules and familiar products, is entirely understandable, if flawed. Goodbye, Lenin! suggests, in a caring and comic way, that as much as we may wish to hide ourselves indoors away from the inevitable future, and while space to mourn it passing is vital, we should ultimately greet it before we are left behind. In this film, then, Becker creates both a timely and timeless ode to moments at a political crossroads.
The film’s drama that makes up the bulk of the comedy concerns the three members of the Kerner family. Presented as a triptych, they span different ideological viewpoints: Christiane Kerner (Katrin Saß) is reluctant to leave the past, her daughter Ariane Kerner (Maria Simon) accepts the future gladly, while Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl) lies somewhere in the middle. Alex is a somewhat reluctant citizen of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany in East Berlin, attending a rally to call for the press freedom available in capitalist West Berlin, but choking on his own words half way through. As the rally turns violent, he is arrested, but seen by his mother, Christiane, a staunch communist. In shock, she suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma. When she eventually regains consciousness several weeks later, the doctor informs Alex that he must save her from anymore shocks. This turns out to be an almost impossible feat, as during her coma she has missed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the introduction of capitalism to East Berlin. Alex promptly sets about keeping his mother from finding out, from repackaging West German pickles into East German jars to creating outlandish communist-style television broadcasts. This results in a comic literalisation of nostalgia. Becker gently elbows us all as Christiane’s bedroom becomes a shrine to communism in East Berlin and throughout asks us: is this cultural sarcophagus comic or pitiful?
Daniel Brühl gives a complex performance through the considerable challenge of portraying a man conflicted by the loss of the familiar culture he has grown up with and the excitement at the prospect of a new one. He creates a character that is almost painful in his touching love and devotion to his mother, despite his obvious knowledge that one day she will be left behind by his generation. Kristen Saß gives an equally multifaceted performance as his mother, who, like the ideology she clings to, is outwardly simple but hiding many secrets. In one particularly touching scene, watching one of Alex’s broadcasts, Becker leaves it up to the viewer to decide who knows what—is it Christiane who has come to accept the steamrolling of capitalism through Berlin, or is it Alex who has realised he cannot stop it? The whole cast is excellent and cleaves to their parts in this black comedy with gusto, but it is truly Brühl and Saß who give this film the subtlety that creates such poignancy in the encounter between loss and hope.
With the strange coinciding of the election of President Trump with the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I can think of nothing better than this film to help say goodbye to the past.
-Abbie Rachael Jaggers