DVD Review Of Good Bye Lenin!
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/20/06
Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film, Good Bye Lenin!, is not a great film, but it is far better than the usual Hollywood tripe, as well as being a cut above most independent films released by filmmakers not named John Sayles. The two hour long film was written by Becker, Bernd Lichtenberg, Hendrik Handloegten, Christoph Silber, and Achim von Borries, and has a unique, if strained premise- that as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 a devout East German Communist flunky, Christiane Kerner (Katrin Saß), who lived in East Berlin fell into a coma after a heart attack and when she woke eight months later, her whole world changed, but her devoted son decides to recreate the fallen state so as to not be such a great shock to his mother’s system.
While the machinations that the son, Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl- a better looking Ashton Kutcher), his girlfriend Lara (Chulpan Khamatova)- a Russian nurse who was tending to Christiane, sister Ariane (Maria Simon), brother-in-law Rainer (Alexander Beyer), and neighbors go to reveal an occasional chuckle, the film could really have been something special- and great, had it played the drama closer to reality. This is not to say that there are not sweet and funny moments, but they cannot compare with such a great premise and the potential for a real exploration into the human psyche and politics’ place within it could have provided. That said, the film, as is, is a very good one, and the acting is stellar. So is how the film deftly avoids falling into being a screed or one dimensional propaganda piece against Communism. We can see the failings of that system when we see how Alex struggles to get a certain type of pickle brand, Spreewald pickles, so his mother will not know the difference. When we see him and his friend Denis (Florian Lukas) ridiculously try to simulate old East German tv newscasts we see how self-defeating a system that denies ingenuity and individuality is. To wave that about as a club is bastardizing the art of the film. If only more artists would learn what Becker’s film knows.
Yet, the real strength of the film comes in the moments when Alex and Ariane are reunited with their estranged father (Burghart Klaußner). Having been told that he abandoned them for the West over a decade earlier, in 1978, it comes out that Christiane lied, and it was she who was supposed to follow, but chickened out, and blamed the father. This moment comes just as Alex is about to explain his charade to Christiane. Instead, she relapses with another heart attack, and the father is tracked down by Alex, and they have a real moment of inarticulation. There is also a great scene where Ariane, in a frenzy, strips her kitchen cabinets for the letters her father sent her, which her mother hid. It really packs a wallop and hints at the greatness a slightly different film version could have achieved. In the end, Lara tells Christiane about Alex’s charade, and there is a great scene where she watches his final phony newscast before dying- replete with recycled images of the Berlin Wall’s fall, and her look at her son is grace. What is amazing is how believable Alex’s upside down revision of history is, where East Germany allows in decadent Westerners sick of capitalism, and Coca-Cola turns out to have been a Communist invention from the 1950s. Image is the power behind film, even if words are its spine. Only Alex is oblivious to the reality of the situation, and after she dies, and he scatters her ashes in a rocket, he still believes that Christiane died believing East Germany was intact. It’s a measure of the film that it dares to have its protagonist exposed as being so lacking in acuity. That some critics and viewers have not gotten that Lara has told Christiane the truth is puzzling, for it’s manifest.
Yet, Alex does somehow construct a fictive Communism that might have been in an alternate world, one that a person might feel pride in. In this a viewer can question how they interpret reality through the filters of the mainstream media, talk radio, cable news, and blogs which all distort real news in varying degrees and forms. Dense critics have carped on the fact that the film does not rail too hard against Communism, as if this were a sociopolitical document, not a work of art. Imagine a film set in a time where a black grandmother falls into a come in 1863, and wakes up the next year free. Need that film tell us that the Confederacy was evil? Yet, this film succeeds at personalizing one of the great social watersheds in recent history, and it works for the most part, even if the premise is a bit forced and unbelievable, and that’s because there are many good little scenes, such as when Alex encounters his boyhood hero- a cosmonaut named Sigmund Jahn (a real life figure, although played by Swiss actor Stefan Walz) now driving a cab and he talks him into pretending he’s East Germany’s new chancellor, or when the daughter recognizes her father at the Burger King she’s now working in- and thells her brother, after he asks what she said to him, ‘Enjoy your meal and thank you for choosing Burger King, and later when she sees him again outside her mother’s hospital room after her heart attack, or when the mother sees a broken statue of Lenin flying under a helicopter, his outstretched arm seeming to reach out to her- a shot reminiscent of the famous scene of the flying Jesus from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and is bemused, or when the girlfriend and Alex first kiss, as the mother revives from her coma.
The DVD comes with two commentaries- by director Becker and stars Saß and Brühl. While the stars occasionally say something of interest theirs is little deeper than your Hollywood actor’s comments- and loaded with dead air, while Becker’s commentary is very good and detailed, politically, technically, and artistically, without a hint of condescension, but a dollop of real humility. There is none of the fellatio abundant in too many current film’s DVDs. Becker actually explains dramatic structure, why certain scenes appear where they do- such as why the fake newscasts about Coke being a Communist invention so that Christiane does not get too suspicious. There are also deleted scenes with Becker’s enlightened commentary, some cuts from the fake newscasts Alex and Denis make, a two minute making of featurette, and a longer one called Lenin Learns To Fly, in which many of the scenes in the film are revealed to actually be special effects. Without this featurette I’d have never guessed that the statue of Lenin under the helicopter was an effect. It is story necessitated effects like this that leave a hope that CGI driven films are not all destined to be garbage. The film is in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the cinematography by Martin Kukula, save for the effects, is solid. I wish an English language dubbed track had been included, but the subtitles do not distract too much. The film score by Yann Tiersen is one of the best in recent memory, and really cores into the emotions in a way the actual story sadly does not, as a whole.
What makes Good Bye Lenin! work as a film is not its political implications, nor the political setup, but the human moments, and it is the relative lack of them vis-à-vis the film’s length that make the film both a joy and bit of a disappointment, for it seems to be a mix of the old television movie of the week formula from the 1970s and a European arts film, and does not fully succeed either way. The film’s lack of poesy is its greatest flaw. But, taken as it is, Good Bye Lenin! is a most worthwhile film and a good chronicle of a clan in an era now passed, long passed, it seems. If other films failed as well as this one does, well, would not success really be a thing?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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