Friday, January 28, 2005

Good Bye, Lenin!

Following on the post below, then, Good Bye, Lenin! is simply a marvellous film. At its heart is a family drama and the intensity of love of a son for his mother, a love which has to be sustained by a fabrication. The film is set in those turbulent weeks in 1989 as the citizens of East Berlin moved finally to tear down the Wall chunk-by-chunk. Only for the mother, Christiane, apparently a believer in the virtues of the communist state, none of this is happening. In a deeply symbolic scene she witnesses her son, Alex, being beaten by East German police during one of the frequent protests against the Wall and falls into a coma. When she comes to eight months later the Wall has been ripped open. Alex is desperate to prevent his mother from succumbing to a fatal heart attack and so contrives to keep her in the dark about the profound changes that seem to have overcome the old cleavages. In creating his make-believe world Alex is playing out the tensions between his affection for his mother and his own desire for political opening.

Wolfgang Becker manages to piece together these elements with wonderful deftness and a great deal of poignancy. The film captures the obvious surreal absurdity of the circumstances and is very funny. But it is never farcical or foolish. As the director notes: "A good comedy always has a very serious basis". Underlying it all are two tragicomic motifs.

One is the story of Christiane's absent husband who went West many years previously and wanted the family to join him. Chrstiane rationalises his disappearance by concealing the truth from her children in order to maintain some semblance of normality in her life, devoted to ameliorating the bureaucratic absurdities of the communist system. Her husband's letters to the family go unanswered and are hidden away. When Christiane finally confesses and Alex and his sister, Ariane, separately meet their father these are scenes of moving pathos.

The other motif is more obviously political. There is nothing triumphalistic here about about the defeat of the East. Far from it, Becker takes good aim at the monolithic absurdities of both Stalinism and capitalism, even while celebrating the freedoms of travel and civil rights that political change has brought. Becker has a particular skill at using props as narrative symbols for the two systems - the "beautiful" blue Trabant or the ubiquitous adverts for Coke, the fossilised leadership of Erich Honecker at the May Day parade or new consumer temples of the supermarkets, the infantile sentimentality of the communist state or soft porn as a prime cultural export of the West. For Alex and Ariane, this is both the shock of the old and the shock of the new. Christiane never does learn the truth of the political transformation though she does have one last meeting with her husband, in her hospital room, which suggests (no more than that) a moment of personal reconciliation.

Nearly 15 years have passed since those tumultuous days. The divisions between Ossies and Wessis are still palpable and there is even a kind of cultural backlash, a sad
Ostalgie for an ersatz East Germany or a more sinister resurgence of extreme right-wing parties with neo-Nazi ties. Becker is right. Beneath the delightful comic touches there lies a seriousness of purpose. For in the end, Good Bye, Lenin! is about the wasted lives of good people, the resentments that will take a long time to heal and the still unconsummated idea of the great German heimat.


Blogger Matt said...

A poignant and subtle film, yes. But while I generally agree with your assessment, it would be dishonest of me not to say I found the film vaguely disconcerting in its pervasive "feel-good" family docu-drama tone-its "ordinary person" apoliticism. A bit formulaic and sentimental, if only because it's been done so much. And yet even if part of a piece, to some degree, the film *was* genuinely touching-it sold its sincerity quite effectively at times, which is to say it didn't feel like it was being sold. On second thought, maybe it was precisely this after-the-fact apoliticism (a vague impotence or disappointment, the 'event' having already taken place) that allows the film to begin to comment meaningfully about 'ostalgia' at all.

12:28 am  

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