As most of the world knows now, life under communist rule was not all that much of a paradise. Government agents kept copious tabs on the citizenry, continually interrogating potential defectors and their families. The food was as drab and colorless as the clothing. And the television airwaves were filled with propagandist materials meant to keep the masses satiated. In October 1989, a new generation of East Germans gathered in the streets of East Berlin every night, to march to the Berlin Wall in protest of the oppressive ruling party. One such protestor is Alex Kerner (Daniel Bruhl), a young man who once dreamed of traveling through outer space during his youth, who is now just looking for something to do. Alex and his sister Ariane (Maria Simon) still live at home with their mother Christiane (Katrin Sass), who dealt with the defection of her husband to the West years before the only way she knew how: by helping herself, her children and her neighbors with letter writing campaigns to manufacturers who make less than desirable products, effort for which, over time, have earner Mrs. Kerner a commendation from the ruling party as an outstanding member of society.
One evening, as Mrs. Kerner is returning home in her chauffer-driven car, she comes in contact with one of these protests, and witnesses her son’s participation. The shock of this act causes Mrs. Kerner to have a heart attack, putting her into a coma just days before the collapse of the socialist structure in East Germany. As the two halves of Germany reunify, Alex does what he can to change with the world around him, getting a new job, new clothes and a new girlfriend, Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), a nurse at the hospital his mother convalesces at. Over the next several months, every last remnant of their former lives is replaced with the new decadence of the West. Alex sells mini-satellite dishes door to door, and Ariane works the drive-thru window at the recently opened Burger King. Alex still visits the hospital daily, and leaves tapes for Lara to play to Mrs. Kerner on the rare instances he is unable to make it.
Mrs. Kerner awakens from her coma after eight months, unaware of the changes in the world. When consulted by his mother’s doctor that her heart is so weak any shock might kill her, Alex conceives of a plan to get her back into their apartment as a way to keep her insulated. With only a few hours to prepare, Alex is able to reconvert Mrs. Kerner’s bedroom back into the same shape it was in when she fell ill, the only room he needs to keep preserved to keep the ruse up for his bed-ridden mother. He reluctantly convinces Ariane and Mrs. Kerner’s friends in the building, who have all quickly and warmly embraced capitalism in the meantime, to dress in their drab old clothes and sing the old propaganda songs from their Socialist past. With all the local markets replacing the lousy bloc foods of the past with exciting new foods from around the world, Alex must resort to digging through trash barrels and abandoned apartment buildings for any old container he can swap the newer foods into, when he brings his mother her meals. And when she wants to start watching television, Alex must devise a way to have their antenna television play programs that are no longer produced. What started out as a simple white lie becomes an enormous con requiring dozens of family, friends and neighbors to pull off, all for the benefit of a single, immobile woman, producing a strain on Alex which threatens to blow his relationship with Lara, his sister and his mother.
On the outside, such heavy subjects as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism would not seem to be the best material for a comedy. However, new German filmmakers seem to have a pretty decent grasp on how to handle their own past with a light touch, and “Good Bye Lenin!” is quite possibly the funniest Germanic export since the 1992 Hitler Diaries comedy “Schtonk!,” which sadly never got released in the United States, despite both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. The film is a winner, thanks to the effortless control of the material by co-writer and director Wolfgang Becker, who is not making any kind of political statement with his film. Comedies should be fun to watch, and this one certainly is.
Daniel Bruhl, who looks like a cross between Ewan McGregor and Jeremy Irons, is the film’s heart and soul. His Alex is all charm and enthusiasm, just wanting to do the right thing for his mother, works wondrous magic without dissolving into a one-dimensional momma’s boy caricature. We accept his need to complete his self-appointed mission because we can believe he believes it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep Mrs. Kerner alive and happy. Confined to most of the film’s 118 minute running time in bed, Katrin Sass does an excellent job of keeping her character’s composure, even during several scenes where the natural first choice an actor would make is to overplay a scene’s emotions.
Believed to be a favorite to win this year’s Oscar for Foreign Language Film, up until the moment the nominations were announced, “Good Bye Lenin!” is an enjoyable time at the movies, and a film that deserves the support of astute film audiences who are not bothered by reading subtitles at the movies.Rating: A