During the Cold War, American propaganda so demonized the Soviet Union and its satellites that it was easy to forget that real people were living real lives in those countries. Now, a decade and a half after the collapse of the Soviet empire, a charming movie emerges from Germany which puts a human face on the sweeping political changes that erupted in 1989.
It’s easy to identify with the Kerners, a fairly ordinary East Berlin family, watching home movies of their summer vacation at a country cabin. The sense of pride that swells in the young son, Alexander (Daniel Bruhl), in 1978, when the first East German cosmonaut rocketed into space, will seem familiar to Americans who remember Scott Glenn and Neil Armstrong.
But the kids knew something was wrong when their father didn’t return from one of his many trips out of the country and their mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass), was questioned by the authorities about his activities. As it was, he didn’t return and Christiane went into a near catatonic depression, requiring her institutionalization.
When she finally comes home, Christiane throws away her absent husband’s clothes and proceeds about her life of social activism. Writer/director Wolfgang Becker keeps the tone light, making sympathetic fun of Christiane, whose chosen issues may be trivial, but whose spirit, sincerity, and determination in the cause of progressive change is admirable–and perhaps unexpected to Westerners who might not have imagined such activity under the regime of Erich Honecker.
Protest marches erupted into riots in East Berlin 1989. When Christiane chances to see Alexander being arrested in the thick of a riot, she collapses with a heart attack and is left in a coma. Once again she is hospitalized for an extended period, a time during which the Wall comes tumbling down, Germany is reunified and the pace of change accelerates. Becker wryly pokes fun at the changes in East Germany, from sister Ariane’s new job at a Burger King to the invasion of consumer goods from the West.
When Christiane emerges from her coma, the doctors urge that she be protected from the strain of any excitement, so Alexander determines that they will shield her from news of all the changes that have occurred. Restoring her bedroom to its pre-coma state and even making TV tapes that hide the new world outside, Alexander goes further and further into a tissue of well-meant fibs.
At nearly two hours, the film tends to run off at the edges, often losing both focus and momentum. Alexander’s romance with a Russian nurse doesn’t make much of a point and seems a loose end and the introduction of the father towards the end of the film seems an unnecessary complication which, as handled, doesn’t ring true. Still, Good Bye, Lenin! creates two well-developed and endearing characters in Christiane and Alexander, enhanced by the unaffected performances of Sass and Bruhl. The overall tone of gentle satire is engaging and Becker’s affection for the Kerners is contagious.