Just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, an East German woman collapses into a coma. Eight months later, she awakes but the Germany she remembers is now gone and united with the West. Worried about his mother’s health, a young man decides to create the illusion that it is still very much Communist East Germany in his mother’s bedroom. ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ is a bittersweet comedy/drama about a son’s love for his mother and contemporary Germany’s new nostalgia for “the good old days.”
Alex learns about consumerism
A film festival favorite, ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ is a timely comedy told from an East German perspective. In spite of all the anti-communist propaganda over the past 4 decades, young Alex had a good life in East Germany. He proudly remembers the first German in space – a co-operative venture with the Soviets, summer camps, and a happy childhood. By the time he’s a teenager, his father has defected to the West. His mother recovers by devoting herself to civic service and becomes a leading local East Berlin politician. But it’s clear that she was wounded by the loss of her husband.
During a demonstration for freedom of the press, Alex is spotted by his mother. She collapses in shock and goes into a coma. While Alex visits his mother daily in the hospital, the world around him changes as the Berlin Wall comes down. Alex loses his job. His sister leaves college to work for Burger King. And Western goods like Coca-Cola and BMWs are soon flooding the East German market.
Miraculously, Alex’s mother awakens but the doctor warns him and his sister, Ariane, that their mother is very weak and could easily have a second fatal heart attack if anything shocks or surprises her. Since Alex feels that his mother, the devoted Communist, would be stunned at the new Germany, he arranges to have his mother’s bedroom decorated with East German décor. He scours the rapidly changing supermarkets for old East German pickles and coffee and arranges videos of fake newscasts to entertain his mother on TV. At one point, when a giant red Coca-Cola banner is unfurled across the street, Alex explains with a fake newscast that Coca-Cola now belongs to East Germany after it’s discovered that America stole the secret formula from the East.
‘Good Bye Lenin!’ is marvelous to watch on a number of levels. Alex’s devotion to his fragile mother is both touching and funnily elaborate. But we’re also impressed that all these changes to East German society literally happened within months of the Wall’s collapse. Eastern goods are rapidly replaced by imports. East German money is made obsolete. Unemployment skyrockets. And the consumer-driven economy of the West means more sophisticated German cars like Volkswagens and BMWs are soon rolling into the East, replacing the clunky but fondly remembered Trabants which East Germans used to wait years for. Alex's ailing mother is a symbol of East Germany's old guard - proud but unable to accept the changes in motion.
When Alex’s mother finally gets the strength to walk about, we get 2 of the film’s most brilliant cinematic moments. In the elevator, she’s shocked to see pornographic and Nazi graffiti. And outside, as she looks puzzled at the BMWs and Audi’s in a car lot, a helicopter flies by carrying a giant bust of Lenin off in the distance. It’s an alien world to her and we’re both amused by her stranger-in-a-strange-world predicament and saddened at what she misses.
It’s a well-written comedy that subverts its family drama message with social politics. That’s why we love shows like ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘All in the Family.’ With the moving ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ we get the message loud and clear that not all changes to East Germany were for the better, no matter how good the intentions. It's a smart parallel to Alex's own family dilemma and it makes 'Good Bye Lenin!' a must-see.