Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! (2003) is one of numerous films that deal with the period surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. However unlike most of this bunch, this film chooses a humorous approach to subject matter that is anything but (not just the wall, but familial abandonment, terminal illness and death of loved ones).
The film follows Alex, a teenager in the last days of the GDR. When she sees him being dragged off by soldiers at an anti-socialist rally, Alex’s loyal to the cause mother collapses. She has had a heart attack and as a result spends eight months in a coma, missing the fall of the wall and the accompanying social changes and opening up of the East. Interestingly for a film chronicling this time period in German history, the fall of the Wall itself is actually dealt with very fleetingly. Rather than dwelling on it Becker instead briefly flashes up some news footage accompanied by a joke referring to a new “recycling campaign.” In a way this is unsurprising given that what is important is not the physical barrier that falls, but the ideology of the East that falls with it, an ideology Alex’s mother believes in passionately. As a result of her heart attack, doctors advise that Alex’s mother should not be subjected to any great shocks. So Alex takes it upon himself to build a microcosm of the GDR in their apartment and deceive his mother regarding what has taken place while she was in her coma. It is really a wonderful premise. I am sure similar ideas have been seen in films both before and since, but I think what this plot has going for it is the sheer magnitude of the event they are trying to hide. This is not just trying to cover up the massive party you had on the weekend when your parents were away. To attempt to cover up such a monumental societal shift takes a lot of commitment. This all unfolds as a series of amusing vignettes, with little coherent linkage besides the common purpose they serve. But these also provide some of the film’s loveliest scenes. In one of my favourites which illustrates the depth of though Alex has to go to, he goes about finding old jars for his mother’s favourite pre-fall brands, and fills them with the new imported produce which is all that are now on sale.
Any film that uses humour to address subject matter as serious as this risks making light of it. Fortunately Goodbye Lenin! Is able to tread this rather fine line well and never comes across as trivialising the human rights abuses perpetrated in the socialist state (although it must be said these are dealt with pretty sparingly). As Alex goes further and further into creating a socialist dream world for his mother, he does seem to become more sympathetic to the society he lived in before the fall of the wall. Whether the film has any pro-socialist sentiment, especially toward the end is a question for individual viewers. Whatever the view on that formed, I think the focus is on the strange sense of melancholy and displacement that must have been felt by those from the East when the Wall fell. Outside of a more competitive football team, all the West seems to bring to Alex’s life is Burger King, Coke and a more accessible source of whipped cream related pornography. This does simplify it somewhat in that the freedom now allowed the characters is welcomed, but again is not a central focus of the film. There is an inner conflict within Alex, which is not really developed through the film in that whilst he comes to yearn somewhat for the pre-fall past he also has a hope for the future with its increased freedom and new girlfriend. It would have been interesting to how he reconciled these two differing ideologies going forward. The film however takes an almost universal light touch, with the only two scenes being exceptions to this are one brief, early appearance by the Stasi at the family home, and also the briefly confronting riot scenes.
When I heard this was a humorous take on the fall of the Wall, I was expecting subtle humour. That is not really found here, I found the humour trades predominately in quippy one-liners and slapstick (for the latter, see a plastered up Alex trying to get out of the bath after helping Lara practice for an upcoming exam). Some subtlety is injected into proceedings when Alex is forced to create fake newscasts to continue to trick his mother. These Be Kind Rewind (2008) esque set pieces are not as overblown or obvious as many of the other attempts at humour in the film. Alex’s partner in crime in creating these fake television newscasts is his work colleague Denis with whom he builds up a strong friendship throughout the film. Denis also delivers the films biggest laugh out loud moment when referencing probably the most famous film cut of all time from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Or maybe I just perceived this as the film’s biggest laugh out loud moment because I watched the film at uni with a bunch of like-minded film nerds who gave the joke a rather rapturous reception. The relationship between these two young men making their way in the new unified Germany is really interesting, especially given Denis hails from the West. Along with these the other aspects of humour which really worked for me were the scenes of Alex’s mother helping her friends draft complaint letters to the appropriate authorities regarding the quality and appropriateness of toasters, maternity wear and most memorably underwear. This humorous highlighting of East/West tension was both funny and illuminated this tension, whereas many of the other attempts were happy to settle for lowest common denominator belly laughs.
Another disappointment I did have with the film is that the supporting cast of characters are somewhat under drawn, with very little back-story. Apparently Lara is a trainee nurse from the U.S.S.R. But this is just mentioned and never delved into. I really wanted to no more about this fantastic woman who woos Alex and enjoys both death metal clubs and romantic sleep-outs under the stars. I wanted to know whereabouts in the U.S.S.R she was from, what she thought of the place, why she was in Germany and where she saw herself in five years. But unfortunately I got none of that. Obviously a film cannot be all back-story and there is a limit to how much delving can be done, but I would have been a lot more satisfied with a bit more. Technically I found the film rather run of the mill. Not every film needs to dazzle with technical flourishes but whilst reasonably done, its just all a bit average. This is strange seeing that Becker shows himself to have some real style when he opens up a couple of times toward the end of the film. This is best illustrated in the scene where Alex’s mother’s condition deteriorates and she is rushed back to hospital. The shots of the ambulance rushing through the streets and tracking shots of Alex’s ailing mother being rushed down hospital corridors; are intercut with ones of Alex’s sister frantically searching for the letters from her father that have been hidden from her all these years in a wonderfully affecting scene. I just wish that Becker had have trusted himself and been more willing to loosen up the filming style a little more throughout.
The ending of the film suggests that the whole charade has become much more important to Alex than to his mother. In filming a fitting farewell for the GDR he does do it out of love for his mother, but also ignores the effect that the whole exercise has on the other women he loves in his life. Both Lara and his sister warn Alex repeatedly against his ongoing crusade to deceive his mother. And it does appear that no one else is as passionate about it, or as desperate to make it work as him. The ending is also somewhat strange in the fact that it is a feel good one, whilst definitely not being a conventional ‘happy’ ending (I can’t really say more than that without giving away a big spoiler). However the reappearance of Alex’s father and the revelations it brings with it adds some intrigue and emotion into the last third of the film. I suspect that overall I have taken a rather shallow reading of this film. And no doubt there is deeper meaning here. I am not sure if it was too subtle, or my cultural background too lacking for me to quite grasp it. And I don’t mean to be too critical of the film throughout this review. This is still a very competently made film, and if you are looking for a fall of the Wall film to watch with your mates and some beers on a Saturday night this is probably your best choice. But if you want to be challenged, confronted and effected by similar events then give Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar winning cinematic tour-de-force (I’m pretty sure I once made a commitment never to use that term) The Lives of Others (2006) a shot.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs