This sprightly German flick almost made Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger nostalgic for the heyday of the DDR, which is no mean feat.
The German Democratic Republic lives on—in 79 square meters!
Once in a rare while, a particularly unique movie experience comes your way. "Particularly unique…"…is that even possible? Well, every movie gives something unique—even remakes—but they tend to deliver uniform impressions. Films like Good Bye Lenin! start with a creative premise and execute that premise with flair, which results in a completely new experience. The film is not entirely successful, but you'll hardly notice as the web of lies draws you in.
Facts of the Case
East German Christiane Kerner (Katrin Saß), mother of Alex (Daniel Brühl) and Ariane (Maria Simon), throws her energy fully into the Socialist regime when her husband deserts the family. Christiane is strong in many ways, writing bold consumer advocate letters on behalf of her less eloquent comrades. She is recognized by the Party for her loyalty. Yet Christiane is also weak, suffering a mental collapse when her husband flees to the West, and refusing to live her life the way she wants to out of fear.
On the eve of great political changes in Germany, Alex protests in the streets alongside a comely nurse named Lara (Chulpan Khamatova). His mother happens by just in time to watch Alex being arrested, which gives her a heart attack. She lapses into a coma. Alex visits her every day out of guilt. One day, he and Lara watch in joy as Christiane recovers. Fragile and vulnerable, Christiane must be spared any excitement, anger, or emotion. Otherwise, she will likely die.
The problem: During mother's eight-month sleep the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Party has disbanded, the West has moved in, and everything Christiane cherished has changed.
Two factors will significantly influence your enjoyment of this film. The first is your level of exposure to the heavy marketing campaign that surrounded Good Bye Lenin!. I was introduced to this sprightly foreign film during its 2003 awards marketing push. I saw dramatic and funny clips of all of the best parts, a captivating montage of reality-stretching moments. This montage sold me on a hilarious, uplifting, and triumphant story of retro East-West politics. The success of this propaganda had two adverse effects. It prepped me for a quirky comedy—but the reality of Good Bye Lenin! is serious, with few moments of pure comedy. Thus, as I watched Good Bye Lenin! it seemed disproportionately dark. The second effect was that I'd already seen the best parts, so when the seriocomic moments arrived they lacked impact. I spent the movie waiting for moments I'd already seen.
Another influential factor is your familiarity with East German history. I've been to and studied West Germany, but East Germany is a closed book to most Westerners. We can only assume that the filmmakers got it right, which explains the nearly universal acclaim afforded Good Bye Lenin! in its native land. An East German coworker of mine loves Good Bye Lenin! because it so accurately recreates the land of his formative years, a land that is gone forever. Without firsthand experience, however, Good Bye Lenin! will not resonate as strongly.
If you are familiar with East German history, or if you haven't seen the good parts in ad campaigns, then Good Bye Lenin! is a shoo-in. Pick it up—odds are you will enjoy the film. The real question is: Can Good Bye Lenin! enthrall Westerners, particularly ones who have been spoiled on the climax of this powerful film?
Fortunately, Good Bye Lenin! provides a strong enough film to maintain interest, even if the dramatic moment when Mother confronts the West for the first time has been taken from you. Good Bye Lenin! is not a masterful film; it has problems with pacing and emphasis and other annoyances. But it is creative and well-crafted.
The greatest boon to this film is its multilayered premise. The idea of a lone holdout, a small pocket of the DDR in the midst of a westernized East Germany, is fascinating. This core idea is responsible for much of the comedy, but also for ruminations on German politics that would otherwise be impossible. Berlin has experienced a surplus of tension in the last few decades, and when the tension broke it resulted in an accelerated and palpable change. Good Bye Lenin! gives us a piercing, introspective look at this upheaval. In fact, the conceit of the film allows us to experience an ideal of Germany that doesn't actually exist. Alex's presumptions about a Socialist German utopia are both humorous and thought-provoking.
Good Bye Lenin! succeeds in implementing this concept through firm direction, a dedicated special effects staff, and solid acting. It was only after watching the extras and seeing how thoroughly the wool had been pulled over my eyes that I appreciated each of these elements.
Wolfgang Becker is a director who cares very deeply about every nuance of his film, driving the staff toward perfect execution of the idea. The featurettes and his commentary reveal a man consumed with getting it right. Becker wanted not only the look and feel of East Germany but also to evoke the social experience of the period. His commentary track is informative, passionate, and balanced, the sort of track that will make you appreciate the film even more.
Becker's vision was only possible through the efforts of a talented effects staff. The highest compliment I can give the production staff is that I was totally unaware that Good Bye Lenin! was effects-driven. I assumed that the sets, landscapes, advertisements, and other details were actually filmed. Yet almost every frame of the film has minor-to-significant digital alteration. In fact, some of the locations were composited from three or four different sources. Even the pivotal scene involving a statue and helicopter fooled me: I assumed they were real and didn't think too hard on the physics. Films like this give me hope for the story-driven use of CGI.
When all is said and done, a film's acting either draws you in or it doesn't. Although the story trod lukewarm waters at times, the actors kept me engaged. Alex, the most complex of the lot, was admirable and insufferable at the same time. I wanted to cheer for him, but when I thought about them closely his actions were not laudable. Daniel Brühl's nuanced performance is carefully offset by Chulpan Khamatova's spirited portrayal of Lara. She projects the kind of energy and tenderness that makes you want to pluck her out of the screen and embrace her. Like Daniel, Kathrin Sass has us pulling for an ethically murky character. The supporting roles were nearly letter perfect, from Maria Simon's pessimistic sister to Alexander Beyer's unlikable boyfriend. Florian Lukas stands out as Alex's friend Denis, a gung-ho filmmaker who helps Alex create fake newscasts to entertain Mother. His hyperactive antics and nonstop patter had me rolling.
Good Bye Lenin! is supported by powerful music (Yann Tiersen's poignant soundtrack perfectly sets each mood) and an impressive slate of extras. The director's commentary is by far the stronger of the two, giving us keen (and, more important, steadily doled out) insights into the creation of the film. The cast commentary feels like a romp, with lots of dead space and ruminations about things that won't necessarily appeal to filmgoers. The best part is hearing of actual East German life and the ways the movie captured it. The deleted scenes are of high quality, and some might have actually improved the tone had they been left in (particularly those involving Denis). The uncut news broadcasts seem very real, so their humor takes a bit of concentration to discern. Of the two featurettes, "Lenin Learns to Fly" is the only true extra (the other is a two-minute music clip). "Lenin Learns to Fly" delves into the special effects underpinnings of Good Bye Lenin!, providing a true look into the film's creation process. As far as extras are concerned, this film excels.
The low-budget sound and video transfer cleanly. The audio is not particularly dynamic, but the mix is tastefully handled. The video is a bit washed out, but not irritatingly so. Both audio and visuals support the illusion that Becker is trying to create.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Good Bye Lenin! is so complex that certain side stories are frustratingly underdeveloped. We never get a clear concept of Alex and Lara's relationship, even with their generous screen time. It is never made clear whether Christiane discovers the ruse and how she feels about it. These could very well be conscious decisions on behalf of the director and editor, but the story leaves us with a vague feeling of unfinished business.
The end of the film is particularly convoluted, with the focus shifting to a series of dramatic (or melodramatic) revelations about the family. It has emotional power, while feeling manipulative at the same time. In fact, Good Bye Lenin! generally suffers from odd pacing decisions and a strange spiral of actions that repeat themselves beyond their dramatic usefulness.
Good Bye Lenin! takes bold political risks by glorifying some rather unglamorous viewpoints. Though I do not support historical revisionism, and I tend to believe that both sides of the coin have merit, it is hard to understand a woman who would choose the hard-line party over her family's well-being. I'll be the first to admit that my discomfort with the family dynamic may stem from a misunderstanding of German ideas.
Finally, Good Bye Lenin! is much darker than either the packaging or marketing would suggest. Berlin saw some brutal times, and we aren't spared them. We watch a family disintegrate firsthand, which is never a comfortable experience.
Though it isn't the most successful movie, Good Bye Lenin! has a clever and involving premise. The direction, acting, and visuals are compelling. This foreign film is a great example of why we should watch more foreign film.
This court says Willkommen to Good Bye Lenin!.
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