Welcome to Rhys Johnson’s Quiet Corner, a safe haven for filmmakers, film enthusiasts, film students and, perhaps most importantly of all, general procrastinators. If you’re a little tired from roaming the vast wasteland of the internet, why not help yourself to a pipe and a snifter of brandy, as we reminisce about films and stuff.
Set in East Berlin, 1989, Alexander Kerner’s mother is a devout socialist. She lives and breathes socialism. So when she sees her son protesting the regime in East Germany, she suffers a near fatal heart attack and is rendered comatose for 8 months, which is just enough time for the Berlin Wall to come down and unite Germany. Knowing that the shock will potentially kill his mother, Alex tries to convince her that Communism is not only strong, but winning against Capitalism.
Good Bye, Lenin! is directed by Wolfgang Becker and stars Daniel Brühl as the main antagonist Alex. The film is labelled as a tragicomedy, which at first I was a little sceptical about because how do you make the circumstances surrounding a heart attack funny? Well you can, and this film does it brilliantly. The main source of comedy in the film is Alex desperately trying to change his surroundings to look like the old East Germany, for example he frequently searches through dumpsters looking for old pickle jars that his mother (Katrin Saß) used to enjoy, whilst in the background his old neighbour is ranting about “the good old days” before the East and West rejoined.
A lot of the other humour felt very “sketch comedy” to me, such as Alex making a speech about the domination of the East over the West whilst behind him a “Trink Coca-Cola” poster is being unveiled on the building behind him. One of the more meaningful images of the film is the statue of Lenin being transported out of the country via aeroplane just as Alex’s mother has stepped foot out of the flat for the first time since her heart attack. It’s funny because of the timing of it all and it should probably leave Alex’s plans in tatters, but it looks like Lenin is reaching out, thus strengthening the resolve of Alex’s fragile mother. And of course, Alex has to step up his game to keep up the charade.
I love how the progression of time is shown in the film because it uses historical footage as a backdrop rather than the main crop of the movie. Good Bye, Lenin! starts with footage of astronaut Sigmund Jähn going to into space, supposedly strengthening the position of the East, but this is used in the background as Alex’s mother is being harassed by government goons in the kitchen. Later on, the film uses real news footage of the Berlin Wall coming down and footage of the German 1990 World Cup success to show just how much times have changed, Germany is now one and they are the focus of the world. The nation rejoices. Alex and his amateur-director friend Lukas actually use the archive news footage to make fake news stories for Alex’s act. I’m a sucker for archive news (especially sports) footage, so I was happy how it was used and, at times, manipulated by Becker and the characters.
The standard of acting is brilliant throughout the film, especially from Brühl, Maria Simon (his sister, Ariane Kerner) and Saß. Brühl and Simon portray the hectic lifestyle of trying to recreate an East Berlin flat whilst having a small child and a boyfriend from the West in the household. I love Brühl’s portrayal of a kid trying to do right by his mother and going to any length to do it because in a way, he feels responsible for her heart attack. As the film goes in, he begins to feel accustomed to the little utopia he has created for his mother, at times wishing that the real world could be that way. Simon’s character shows the duality of the situation they’re in, on paper it’s a crazy solution for a rather intense situation and the cracks gradually begin to show throughout the film. She has a boyfriend from the West, a little daughter, another kid on the way and a job at Burger King after dropping out of school. She has already fully embraced the German unification, but also wants to support her mother and make her happy whilst she is still around.
Saß’s performance as Christiane Kerner is probably my favourite thing about the film. Christiane was a strong character and a strong mother before the heart attack, but after she’s left weak. Strong-willed, but weak. Saß brings a blend of strength and vulnerability to her character that really made me root for her and support her, but not pity her in any way. Even with all the turmoil around her, Christiane was still the matriarch of the flat. She had earned the respect those around her, which is probably why her circle went along with Alex’s plan rather than have nothing to do with it or come clean, as that could have broken her.
Good Bye, Lenin! has humour, smarts and emotion perfectly blended into a great story. I don’t know a damn thing about German politics (which probably shows throughout this) and, whilst the film doesn’t exactly delve into the nitty-gritty of Communism vs Capitalism, it has a sort of infectious charm that is thoroughly enjoyable if given the chance