The fall of Communism in eastern Europe becomes the subject of a gentle satire tinged with melancholy in Wolfgang Becker’s funny, touching “Good Bye, Lenin!” Christiane (Katrin Sass), an East German wife and mother, becomes a staunchly active supporter of the party and its ideals after her husband, a doctor, defects to the west in 1978. Eleven years later her children Alex (Daniel Bruehl) and Ariane (Maria Simon) may have become doubtful about the regime, but she remains committed. Unfortunately, she suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma just as the communist government is collapsing, and during her eight months of unconsciousness after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the youngsters join the march of capitalism. Alex becomes a salesman and installer of dish-television systems (as well as the boyfriend of Lara, a Russian nurse who cares for his mother, played by Chulpan Chamatova), while his sister goes to work at a fast-food hamburger joint and takes up with its bubble-headed manager, Rainer (Alexander Bayer). When Christiane awakens and Alex is told that any shock could bring on a second attack, he decides, out of an excess of filial devotion, to create, in the confines of the bedroom in which she’ll recuperate, the illusion that the GDR is not only still alive but flourishing in its rivalry with the West. Enlisting neighbors and old colleagues of his mother, as well as some students whom he hires to play members of the communist youth brigade and his filmmaker co-worker Denis (Florian Lukas), who makes fake news reports to play on Christiane’s television via the miracle of video tape, Alex manages the deception for weeks. But maintaining the false appearance grows more difficult as signs of increased westernization become more obvious, and in the end it turns out that Alex isn’t the only one keeping a major secret.
This scenario could easily have degenerated into a crude one-joke farce, and what’s remarkable about “Lenin” is that it never does. Much of the credit must go to Becker and Bernd Lichtenberg, whose approach is astonishingly sensitive to Christiane’s misguided loyalty to a regime that–as the picture clearly implies–was responsible for creating, for a full four decades, as much a Potemkin Village of phony surfaces as Alex is fashioning for a far briefer time (and, it must be added, a more noble reason). While hardly sympathetic to the communist past, their treatment never denigrates the principles it claimed (however falsely) to represent, and it certainly doesn’t ridicule the dedication of people like Christiane to its ideological ideals. The script is also very good at inventing twists and complications that arise quite naturally from the original premise, and using imagery and visual details from the period (the most notable example being a quite amazing shot of a huge statue of Lenin being helicoptered out of the city). And unless I’m mistaken, the emphasis on the ubiquity of Coca Cola in the newly westernized East Berlin isn’t just an easy shorthand for the triumph of capitalism, but a nod to the greatest of the Cold War Hollywood comedies, Billy Wilder’s “One Two Three,” in which James Cagney famously chewed up the screen as Coke’s man in West Berlin. (One problem of the film, it should be noted, lies in the insertion of entirely too many shots of Ariane’s infant daughter as emotional inducements for the audience. Becker’s work is too good to need this sort of schmaltzy italicizing.)
Of course, the warmth of the script has to be transmitted to the audience by the cast, and Becker has assembled a fine one. The standout is Bruehl, who unerringly captures the many facets of what is, in fact, a very complex character: a dedicated son obviously still saddened by what he’s suffered at the hands of his father and his government; a young man searching, with more than a hint of fantasy, for romance; a fellow trying to plug into the system and better himself; and, in the end, rather an obsessive, too. Bruehl’s face–often genial but just as often slightly morose, almost pleading–registers all this and more. Sass matches him by making Christiane no caricature of a party loyalist but a woman of principle and conflicting emotion. The supporting cast is excellent; Simon and Kharmatova are fine, but they’re upstaged by the more extravagantly humorous Lucas and Beyer. Michael Gwisdek contributes an especially canny turn as the erstwhile principal of a school where Christiane once taught. It’s a beautifully subtle portrayal of a man who’s fallen on bad times. The film isn’t especially elegant visually, but that’s hardly the point: it certainly captures the grimy, disheveled look of East Germany at the time of its great transformation.
What’s especially nice about “Good Bye, Lenin!” is that despite a subject that might appeal to Americans’ (and western Europeans’) sense of smug superiority, the picture is made in such a way as to dampen any misguided sense of triumphalism. After all, if you consider its message on the broadest level, it suggests that blind support of any political regime is likely to involve deliberate self-delusion. That’s a lesson anyone, anywhere, would be wise to learn.