Bloc nostalgia 

A review of Good Bye Lenin!

click to enlarge Daniel Brhl as Alex, who tries to shield his mother from the knowledge that capitalism has succeeded.
  • Daniel Brhl as Alex, who tries to shield his mother from the knowledge that capitalism has succeeded.

*Good Bye Lenin! (R)
Sony Pictures Classics

The confluence of politics and family life is hardly a staple subject of the American cinema. Any number of sociologists and film scholars can wax like wonks about why this is so, but let's shelve that conversation for now because Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye Lenin is an entirely German affair.

In this bittersweet family saga, skeletons in the closet provide a useful context for exploring how politics can fuel pathology and how it can morph into a harrowing, hilarious mess.

If family life isn't hard enough, imagine this: At the age of 8 your father defects to West Germany from East Germany, never to be heard from again. After a few weeks in the loony bin, your mom (Katrin Sass) recovers by becoming the ultimate socialist soccer mom. She files wryly worded letters for comrades regarding the deficiencies of women's undergarments, teaches the "Young Pioneers" boy choir to belt swansongs to collective farming, and is the vision of a loyal comrade.

This is the life of Alex (Daniel Brhl), who in 1989 finds himself working as a TV repairman while protesting for democratic freedoms at night. During a standoff between police and protesters, he's beaten by undercover apparatchiks. When his mother recognizes him, she collapses into an eight-month coma.

"Mother slept through the relentless triumph of capitalism," Alex narrates as the country that gave his mother a reason to exist collapses into a hungry market for Coke and fast food.

Alex is charged with the impossible task of not upsetting his convalescing mother, which essentially means batting down the curtains of history. With the help of a co-worker who aspires to be the next Stanley Kubrick, he re-creates the nightly news of the GDR (imagine Fox with lower production values). He spends the rest of his free time ferreting out state-crafted groceries from flea markets and trash heaps, while enlisting neighbors in his struggle to shield his mom from a reality he's sure will kill her.

As Alex becomes more ardent in his campaign, he becomes ideologically entrenched, sympathizing with old-timer die-hards who are his mother's friends. Good Bye Lenin holds the premise for a political screwball comedy. Had Becker chosen to go that route, he would have succeeded even if the relationship between Alex and his mother were to lose some of its poignancy.

Good Bye Lenin basks in a curious nostalgia for the detritus of the Eastern bloc -- not for its fascistic politics, but merely for its more visceral sights and smells. It's an amusing mindbender to contemplate a Che Guevara portrait lining a family's modest apartment in much the same way a JFK rendering proudly hangs in an Irish-American home.

While the film has been a huge hit in Europe, many of the cultural references will be lost to Westerners (like me). However, there's enough substance and humor to make it worthwhile, especially as Alex's experiment unravels.

Sass's performance as a decaying true believer is remarkable in its subtlety, which makes the elegiac piano score by Yann Tiersen all the more glaring. Here's a simple, almost elegant riff that's so over utilized it makes those GE soft light bulb commercials seem like an exercise in understatement.

There are a few surprises to Good Bye Lenin that are best kept out of this review. One such subplot finds the film biting off a bit more than it can chew. But perhaps that's just like the socialist experiment, something few Coloradans (Boulder notwithstanding) can imagine sentimentalizing, but should nevertheless try. According to your own means and needs, of course.

-- John Dicker

Kimball's Twin Peak

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