Good Bye, Lenin!—a tragicomic sensation upon its release in Germany in 2003—remains underseen in much of the English-speaking world. This is surprising when considering both its tonal and aesthetic similarities to the worldwide hit Amélie (2001), and the general lovability of the film’s breakout star, Daniel Brühl.
“Seemingly within moments, the Berlin Wall is being torn down—the GDR has failed and Christiane has no idea.”
The story starts in the autumn years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where Alexander (Brühl), his mother Christiane (Katrin Saß), sister Ariane (Maria Simon) and infant niece Paula, share an apartment in East Berlin. As Alexander grows up, Christiane has become more supportive of the oppressive Socialist party, whereas he’s becoming more rebellious. When she witnesses her son being arrested at an anti-government demonstration, she literally has a heart attack. Alexander is soon released from detention to see his mother, and finds her lying in a coma. Seemingly within moments, the Berlin Wall is being torn down—the GDR has failed and Christiane has no idea.
The rapid succession of events in this first act could have easily been mishandled, but director Wolfgang Becker (Me and Kaminski) and editor Peter R. Adam, subtly interweave archival footage from the era into the film, which creates a fabric of scratchy authenticity.
“So with the help of his initially hesitant sister, they transform the family’s rapidly Westernising apartment back to nostalgia-drenched East Berlin style, so Christiane thinks nothing has changed.”
While Christiane is comatose, Alexander sits next to her in a sombre waiting game, until he starts to find solace in his crush on nurse Lara (Chulpan Khamatova). Together, they smoke a joint at a party in a half-destroyed apartment building, share knowing smiles and glances, and eventually kiss in Christiane’s hospital room. Of course, after eight months, that’s the moment Christiane snaps out of her coma.
The doctor gives Alexander permission to take care of his mother at home, with the warning: “You must protect her from any kind of excitement or upset.” So with the help of his initially hesitant sister, they transform the family’s rapidly Westernising apartment back to nostalgia-drenched East Berlin style, so Christiane thinks nothing has changed. They find old food jars (pickles, jams) to replace their Western products, and Alexander even enlists his filmmaker friend Denis (Florian Lukas) to create staged news reports adding another layer of ostalgie through archival footage—keeping in style with the scrapbook aesthetic of the film.
The plan works seamlessly, for a while, until Christiane notices fragments of Western culture on TV, and on billboards outside. Inquisitive, she sneaks out of the apartment, and finds herself in a very different Berlin. As the piano score (by Amélie composer Yann Tiersen) swells, and her eyes glass over in the sunlight, you feel the melancholy pouring out from this former hardliner Socialist, wandering into a place that’s vividly colourful, but covered in ads for IKEA and Coca-Cola, after years of tonal sameness. It’s a moment that’s emotionally reminiscent of The Truman Show, when Truman discovers what he’d suspected: the world he lived (and believed) in is phoney.
“Everything, from Christiane’s favourite East German pickles to Alexander’s t-shirts to the statues of political figures throughout Berlin, must one day change.”
What is most rewarding (and relatable) about Good Bye, Lenin! is the film’s intimate scale and humble third act. Rather than ending with an expository monologue or punchline, Christiane and Alexander quietly accept that the world is changing, and ultimately, they can’t always protect each other from exterior political or personal forces. Everything, from Christiane’s favourite East German pickles to Alexander’s t-shirts to the statues of political figures throughout Berlin, must one day change.
In present-day Berlin, architectural remnants of the GDR years still feature prominently throughout the cityscape—particularly around Alexanderplatz, where the Fernsehturm (TV Tower) continues to be an imposing reminder of Germany’s divided past. A social nostalgia for East German life also lingers with some older Berliners, as told in Anna Funder’s compassionate book Stasiland (2002). But the transformation of physical barriers (like the Wall itself) into public art spaces, and the repurposing of old industrial buildings into hedonistic nightclubs, are just two examples of the city’s much-discussed continual reinvention. Good Bye, Lenin! captures this energy through, not only the superficial changes to the city (Western billboards, brighter colours), but also the emotional relationship between past and present, embodied by Christiane and Alexander.
Good bye, Lenin! by Wolfgang Becker (2003), 121 minutes, Germany