Christianity is not the only religion celebrated at the movies this week. Also opening for Lent, Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! is predicated on the disappearance of the specter that once haunted Europe. Enormously popular in Germany, where it seemed to reflect the current mood of ostalgie for the old DDR, Becker’s feature tells the tale of a wall-sundered East Berlin family. After father defects West, mother (Katrin Sass) goes mentally East as a Young Pioneer leader, a Party activist, and an advocate for better women’s underwear. Becker deftly evokes the lost DDR of Stasi night calls and “Solidarity With Mozambique” shopping bags, then jumps ahead a decade to tumultuous 1989: On her way to a political function, mother sees son Alex (Daniel Brühl) at a demo and collapses. Her coma lasts eight months.
“Mother slept through the relentless triumph of capitalism,” Alex recalls. By the time she awakes, he is selling satellite dishes, and sister Ariane (Maria Simon) is a Burger King worker. Warned that his mother might not survive another shock, Alex works to preserve her illusions: This red Rip Van Winkle will never know whose new day has dawned. Alex recommunizes the flat—scouring flea markets for appropriate props, decanting new imported food products in the old familiar cans retrieved from the garbage. The movie slows down as Alex completes his Potemkin village by installing a hidden VCR to broadcast old news or faked official explanations for the Coca-Cola logo mom spots from her bedroom window.
Had it been directed by Billy Wilder, Good Bye, Lenin! could have been a sensational farce—the reverse of One, Two, Three, in which Berlin-based Coca-colonizer James Cagney has 24 hours to transform a bellicose East German beatnik into a model capitalist son-in-law. Good Bye, Lenin! does have a few jokes—when Alex tells Mom they now have a Trabant, she incredulously replies, “After only three years of waiting?”—but sitcom premise notwithstanding, it’s not exactly a comedy. The mother is a beatific innocent; when she manages to sneak out of the apartment the first thing she sees is a swastika graffiti in the elevator. A few moments later, she encounters a giant Lenin statue trailing from a helicopter en route to history’s graveyard. In the movie’s most poetic touch, the Communist prophet gestures, just to her. She faints, and thereafter, Good Bye, Lenin! grows increasingly sentimental.
Mom’s condition worsens, although her faith never wavers. The father reappears for maximum poignance, and Germany’s impending unification stirs Alex to one last staged event: In his video-crafted scenario, Party Secretary Erich Honecker resigns to be replaced by a heroic cosmonaut who opens the DDR border to eager wessie immigrants. Good Bye, Lenin! is overlong and a bit tiresome but it’s actually about something—not so much ostalgie as the conditions that create it. That Communism itself was a fake facade makes Alex’s imaginary motherland the simulation of a simulation. There’s a haunting quality to his bittersweet realization that “the DDR I created for her became the one I would have wished for.”