Monday, November 09, 2009

Good Bye Lenin!

Imagine if the former DDR hadn't walled people in.

This film came out in 2003 but I watched it again last night inspired by all the Berlin wall-related news reports. Today is in fact the 20th anniversary of when the Berlin wall opened, kickstarting the process of reunification between East and West Germany and the end of the Cold War.

Good Bye Lenin! is the story of a family in East Berlin. It's 1989 and, in the midst of the popular protests that will lead up to change, Alex's mother (a devoted East German socialist), suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma. By the time she comes round, Berlin has changed at the fastest pace imaginable.

An entire regime has been swept away, a fact rendered most obvious by the most mundane details. Old East German food and drink brands all but disappeared in weeks. Western cars and billboards populate the streets, TV is already radically different and so is a job market where celebrity 'cosmonauts' have to resort to driving taxis to make ends meet.

Afraid that his mother's frail heart may not be able to bear all this, Alex decides to maintain the illusion that nothing's changed and that the wall's still there. The extent to which he's prepared to go is touchingly comical. Alex begs his neighbours to play along and travels the length and breadth of Berlin in search of disused East German goods that he can show his mum. But the best bits are the fake TV broadcasts, which Alex is able to knock up courtesy of his friend Dennis, an aspiring film director.

And here I stop, because it's not my intention to spoil the story. Debates can carry on forever as to whether the sudden end of East Germany was a good thing or not, or whether people's expectations where quickly betrayed by the ruthless but inevitable structural changes.

What's amazing about Goodbye Lenin! though, is how all of the above is depicted at a human level, with a family tragedy centred around our innate fear of change and penchant for illusion and denial. Ultimately, it's a story about the passing of time and society's evolution. Just imagine if the changes that happened to us in the space of forty years were all condensed within a month or two.

Except that this is exactly what happened in East Berlin, where the binge of changes proved so sweepingly exciting that it's almost as though nobody took time to notice that an entire world, the same world millions had grown up in, had slipped away in an instant.

Alex's illusion of an East Germany that is still alive and well must have been the equivalent of us trying to recreate the 1960s forty years down the line- like decorating a house without PCs, microwaves or DVD players and with analog TVs that can only show BBC1 and ITV .

The make-believe world of Goodbye Lenin! is also touchingly political. It dreams up an entire ideology that bypasses the reality of a 40-year-old dictatorship. When Alex plays his final fake news report and Sigmund Jahn makes his imaginary speech as president, this is what he says:

"Socialism isn't about walling yourself in. It's about reaching out to others and living with them. It means not only dreaming about a better world, but making it happen. Therefore, I have decided to open the borders of the GDR".


eric the fish said...

One of my fave films. Saw it in the former DDR kino without English subtitles. Many in the East would prefer a return to pre-89 days.

Hannah M said...

I watched this on television over the weekend too, although i have the DVD (yep, i love it that much). Great film, definitely agree with what you've said about it.

Vicky said...

"Sonnenallee" has a similar feel to it. Highly recommend it (though I'm not sure if you can get it with subtitles).

HarpyMarx said...

I saw the film when it was first released in 2003. Really enjoyed it as was engaging on a human level, and the fake tv broadcasts are brilliant.