Zoe Simon reviews Wolfgang Becker's film, 'Goodbye Lenin', Rio Cinema, Dalston (London), and limited release
Goodbye Lenin is a comedy, which takes its inspiration from the death throes of the German Democratic Republic, and the subsequent reunification of Germany. Set in 1989, it follows the story of Christiane (Katrin Sass), a loyal member of the Socialist Unity Party - the (east) German ‘official communist’ party.
Christiane goes into a coma days before the Berlin Wall falls, and does not awake for another eight months. Her condition is precarious, and doctors warn her son, Alex, played expertly by Daniel Brühl, that the slightest shock could prove fatal.
Alex is convinced that knowledge of the reality of the newly reunified, capitalist Germany will send his mother to her grave, and so the charade begins … Alex attempts to recreate life in the old GDR in his mother’s home, going so far as to fake news bulletins, which are hilarious.
Fortunately Goodbye Lenin steers away from farce, and is compelling for two reasons: the acting is superb, and, surprisingly, the underlying political message strikes a chord with anyone who has communist sympathies.
While it is steeped in nostalgia for the old times under Stalinism, Becker is explicit in his condemnation of the totalitarianism of the GDR - Alex’s final news bulletin depicts a reunification of Germany led by the party, which states: “Socialism is not about putting walls around yourself” - and, through him, the consumerism which reunification introduced is questioned and condemned. Indeed it is telling that the film’s premise is unashamedly lifted from The bedbug, a play by the Soviet poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, himself a great lampooner of the society in which he lived.
It is no coincidence that the most cinematographically beautiful scene is Lenin’s farewell to Christiane. An enormous statue of Lenin on ropes glides down the street, his outstretched arm extended towards her.
Becker’s distaste for the consumerist tide which rapidly engulfed eastern Germany after reunification is, however, highlighted by such nostalgic moments. He pokes fun at the fetishisation of brands such as Coca Cola: banners depicting its logo are unfurled down apartment blocks, where previously red flags celebrating the GDR’s anniversary hung.
Becker plays on how the red of communism is displaced by the red of Coca Cola - airships bearing the Coca Cola logo are even in the skies!
Meanwhile Alex is keen to come to the defence of the old regime he is desperately trying to recreate. “What did you do before in the GDR? You went to university,” he says to his layabout sister. “Now you say, ‘Thank you for choosing Burger King’.” The message is clear: at least before we stood for something - warts and all.
The message is refreshing in these times of continued capitalist triumphalism.
Speaking personally, I cannot really remember the GDR; neither can I remember a time when the logos of Coca Cola, Burger King and the rest did not saturate society. The thought of living in a state which decided not to play host to these brands has for me - junk food junkie that I am - a certain allure. After all, the rights accorded to the workers employed by such companies are even less substantial than their fare.
We need these brands about as much as a fish needs lederhosen.
What we do, however, need more of is intelligent criticism which, in my opinion is exactly what Goodbye Lenin is. Comrades: a must see!