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May 27, 2016

Good Bye, Lenin!

by Franz Patrick


Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Good Bye, Lenin!,” a tragicomedy by director Wolfgang Becker, is an effortless picture that stirs the sensibilities as it engages the mind. It works because it takes its time to unfold. Numerous small, sometimes big, surprises are found along the way and yet they do not come across clichéd. Rather, these elements feel as though they are natural progressions to a most mesmerizing story where social and personal histories and ideologies collide and expand again.

After getting a heart attack and falling into a coma for several months, a single mother of two, Christiane (Katrin Saß), wakes up from her deep sleep. During her mental absence, the wall that divides East and West Germany was destroyed and their socialist party has been essentially dissolved. The doctor insists that Christiane should avoid getting excited in any way because her heart remains weak. To keep her well, the son, Alexander (Daniel Brühl), recreates the East Germany that was—or at least the idea of it—beginning with his mother’s room where she is to remain, for the time being, every minute of every day.

The performances are consistent and strong. Saß plays the matriarch with a delicate balance of strength and frailty. She accomplishes such a feat by putting power in her eyes, seemingly always thinking or psychically trying to communicate, but her body language is often languid, barely moving. Brühl proves to be her equal because the strongest scenes are almost always just the two of them taking up space in the same room and the silence sits like a heavy fog.

There is tension because the lie takes a life of its own eventually. Most amusing are moments when Alex and his friend (Florian Lukas), the latter aspiring to become a film director one day, fabricate fake news to be seen by Christiane every evening via VHS. And yet despite this branch being a constant source of humor, there is a beautiful scene toward the end where characters watch a fake television program and we see in their eyes how much they’ve missed East Germany—even though their current way of life has been changed for the better. This is only one of the many examples where the content reaches a level of complexity so uncommon in the sub-genre of tragicomedies.

Although the picture’s love story is mainly between mother and son, I wished the romantic relationship between Alex and Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) had been explored further. I enjoyed that there is an absence of superficial drama about the girlfriend being jealous because the boyfriend does not spend enough time with her. As in real life, when someone’s health is vitally involved, there is a common understanding. Particularly impressive are scenes where Alex and Lara are shown just being content together. We believe they are a real couple trying very hard to keep it together, on their own sometimes, so that they can be together.

Written by Bernd Lichtenberg and Wolfgang Becker, “Good Bye, Lenin!” is packed with delightful moments, whether it be from a technical standpoint—for instance, its utilization and editing of family recordings as well as vintage historical clips to create an impression that they belong to same fabric—or a storytelling point of view. Because the film is rich with colorful and emotional layers, it holds up upon multiple viewings.

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