Imagine it is Election Day in America in the year 2000. After watching the news that evening, Al Gore is declared the projected winner and you go to bed early so you can get up for work the next morning. Only that evening, you suffer a coma-inducing stroke. You wake up ten months later to find George W. Bush is president, the economy is in ruin, and New York and Washington, DC are victims of a unprecedented terrorist attack.
Despite taking place in the fall and spring of 1989 in East Germany, Good Bye, Lenin! is not, at its heart, an inherently political movie. The movie’s observations are more like an intriguing Twilight Zone episode, and they become more refreshing and unique as the film progresses.
Just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Alex (Daniel Bruhl) watches his proud East German mother suffer a heart attack when she sees him marching against the socialist government. She awakens eight months later from a coma and Alex is told that her heart is still very weak, and another big shock could be fatal. Alex then starts an elaborate hoax to keep his mother convinced that everything in Germany is as it was before her coma.
The reunification of Germany plays a great role in Good Bye, Lenin! but only because it is the catalyst for the conflict. The real story is how ideologies melt when it comes to affairs of the heart. In that way, the movie has an appeal that goes way beyond its country’s borders.
The world Alex creates for his mother after she’s awakened starts simply enough, going back to plainly labeled foods and commonplace furniture. But when Alex starts giving all of his mother’s visitors scripts and instructions to participate in the deception, the charade takes on an almost epic, and funnier, scale.
Alex creates his own progressing storyline for the country. It comes to represent what he wished might have happened, at least for his mother’s sake. The fictional utopian East Germany created by Alex and his budding film student friend, Denis (Florian Lukas), arrives at the same united place it is today, but through some radically different measures. Rod Serling could come on at any minute and it wouldn’t seem out of place.
As silly as the premise is, the movie is firmly rooted in making all its situations as plausible as possible. We believe that Alex is capable of going to these insane lengths to shelter his mother from the truth. And, although some of his schemes do seem a little far-fetched, the tone never lapses into slapstick. That said, Good Bye, Lenin! is not a laugh-out-loud film. Director Wolfgang Becker is content with the film’s thoughtfulness and lets the story’s charm win over the audience.
Nor does the movie feel like a history lesson. The social criticism comes naturally, as most of the characters embrace their new-found freedom while others yearn for the days of just eight months prior. There are a number of moments that illuminate what it must have been like to live through this awkward period. For example, when all of his mother’s hard-earned and -saved cash from 40 years is finally discovered, Alex finds that he’s missed the deadline for the money changeover by two days.
Katrin Sass is wonderfully subtle as Alex’s mother. On the surface, she appears to not only follow her party’s rule, but also to advance its ideas enthusiastically. After a revelation towards the end, we realize that she is addicted to helping others because of a life-altering event she suffered in the past. It serves to make Mrs. Kerner more complete, and rings true with Sass’s choices that we’ve already seen.
Alex lets his mom believe that East Germany has reached out for all of Germany to come together, and it is precisely that helpful healing that creates an opportunity for the Kerner family to come together as well. It would be nice if America could do that.