Good bye Lenin! is a feel good movie – in it’s true form.
This is not one of those movies where someone suffers and we get to ‘feel good’ by laughing at their pain. It is not one where the girl dumps one guy and leaps into the arms of the other – thereby giving us fantasies of the same happening to us and letting us ‘feel good’.
There are no heroes and no villains – but not because the characters are ‘gray’ or making ‘difficult choices’.
This is ‘feel good’ boiled down to it’s very essence – a movie that will give you such a good experience, you wish you were a part of it.
Here is the plot -
It’s 1990. Alex (Daniel Brühl) is the good son of a staunchly socialist single mother living in the (now former) German Democratic Republic – or as it is colloquially known – East Germany.
However, Alex goes for an anti-socialist protest where he is arrested on live TV. Alex’s mother, on witnessing her son’s arrest and obvious capitalistic basis, suffers a great shock, a heart attack and then slips into a coma.
Flash forward eight months and it is the eve of the a new world. The Berlin wall has fallen and for the first time after WW2, East and West Germany are on the verge of reuniting into a new and whole Germany. Socialism and Mother Russia are on the way out. Capitalism, the West and the Fatherland are on the way in.
But Alex’s mother has awakened and, as per doctor’s orders, is too weak to survive another shock. Unfortunately, the news that her entire ideology, country and world view was on the verge of being shunted to a mere footnote in history was most certainly a shock that just might kill her.
Alex’s solution? The DDR can fall all around them, but not in the tiny apartment that his mother resides in – here nothing has changed..at all.
What begins with just refurnishing his mother’s room to an old look, quickly escalates to fake news broadcasts, scripts for everyone who drops by, fake products and a whole manufactured world view. And then things really spin out of control.
The hilarious, moving and surprisingly deep crux of the movie is how (or for how long) Alex keeps up the charade of an unchanged world, before the truth (via things like Coca Cola and Burger King) inevitably intrudes.
Through amazingly subtle and nuanced performances, we journey with the characters as they analyze and interpret both worlds – the changed reality and the ‘unchanged world’ performance they have to put up. And it is about how some things like families, the threads that bind us together and the weird things that love makes us do for each other – remain unchanged, even when all of history is changing around us.
This is not a movie that will cause you to laugh out loud. But it will make you smile and keep you smiling when flashes of the film come back to you over time.
Should you look for them, the metaphors are thick and all reaching,
One of the examples which occurred to me was this -
Alex’s father had abandoned the family to go live in West Germany. His mother – both loyal to the party and a ideological believer – stayed behind in the East and raised her kids.
Or so it seems.
Alex initially sees his father’s move to the West as a betrayal to, and an abandonment of, both Alex’s mother and Alex himself. But as the movie progresses, you learn that actually what happened was that the entire family was supposed to go (the father just went first) but Alex’s mother, fearing for her children, stayed behind at the last minute.
She kept up the act of the being a good socialist to further enforce her family’s good credentials before the all-powerful state. Alex does realizes the truth and reunites with his father in the West. He even comes to feel that the father might have been right and the mother was possibly wrong. But at the same time he does not end up hating his mother. He realizes that she was also a victim of her times, her circumstances.
She did what she felt was right for her children. The father, in a different way, tried to do the same thing.
Nobody’s exact dreams came true and everyone tried their best to make do with what was at hand.
Interestingly, Germans are one of the few people who consider their homeland as a ‘Fatherland’ while Russians are the most vocal about referring to their home as ‘Mother Russia’ .
Alex’s ‘Father’ is in the West. His ‘Mother’ is in the East. Alex the East German remains a ‘child’ of both the ‘Father’ and the ‘Mother’, of West and East.
While the above may just be an exercise into cinematic pretension by me, it is true that there are a lot of heavy themes and ideas scattered throughout the film.
Things like – love, the inevitability of change, our attempts to control it, and our great wish for inevitable changes to happen in a certain way.
This brings me to the best aspect of the film – how the truth is bought forward.
In the end, realizing that he has to somehow tell his mother the truth, Alex constructs a long broadcast where he makes it appear that the socialist East has decided to open it’s borders to the West, so that the West may come and live with them, since “Socialism means we all should live together.”.
The scene where the mother, who by this time has already figured out the truth by herself, smilingly watches the son show her a version of the truth that he feels would be acceptable to her world view, is both poignant and an amazing round up to the film.
The whole scene has a surreal aspect to it, like a glimpse into an alternate time line where the result was the same, just the reasons were different.
In the end fake speech, we get to see the hopes and dreams of an entire ideology. This was what people like his mother had hoped for, had dreamed for – an open and free society for all. And even if that was not how it turned out, it was perhaps how people wanted to things to turn out.
This is what we all want, in a way. We want the future…just on our terms.
Not that the movie skips through the hard stuff. That is there – in moments like when his mother loses all of her life savings simply because they missed the deadline to change the money into the new currency. Serious problems that undoubtedly plagued those who were living through the transition.
But, whether you take it metaphorically or casually, ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ is definitely one of those experiences that will leave an impression.
Give it a watch!
13 February 2003