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2004 Mini Reviews

Review: Good Bye, Lenin! (2004)

Good Bye, Lenin!
Directed by Wolfgang Becker
Starring Daniel Bruhl, Kathrin Sass, Chulpan Khamatova
Running Time: 121 minutes

Few events changed the political structure of the world as much as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many consider it to be the last barrier to fall in the Cold War, and resulted in the final triumph over of the West over the East. To those who lived through it, the unification was even more tumultuous, as two opposing ideologies converged into one, and inevitably the lures of commercialism triumphed over the banality of the East.

Wolfgang Becker's cinematic interpretation of this event is unlike what anyone (except himself, of course) could imagine. Good Bye, Lenin! is part political comedy, part social commentary, part family drama, but mostly it is a coming of age story, not just about one person, but of an entire people. It is about transition, about our built-in resistance to change, and about our nostalgia towards the past.

Good Bye, Lenin! is about a small family living in East Germany under the German Democratic Republic (the communists, in case you missed that class). The mother is a staunch and loyal party member who devotes herself relentlessly to improving their lives within the system; this means she writes letters demanding clothes that actually fit. Shortly before the wall falls, she has a major stroke and falls into a coma -- an eight month long coma. The problem is, her health is still at risk, and the doctor warns against any excitement. In this case, to her, just looking outside could cause this excitement. Luckily Alex, her loving son, takes it upon himself to recreate Communist Germany within the confines of their small apartment. Preserving the illusion (and hence saving his mother) becomes Alex's obsession, as he combs the wreckage of the East for old pickle jars, coffee packets, and secondhand clothes.

As you might imagine, this is a huge story! Becker does a terrific job at telling a great deal of the story through montage, and often switches the pace, so that a lot of the history is covered quickly, while the film slows to a screeching halt during dramatic or key character moments. From the opening credits, he establishes the quick cutting, and almost MTV-style direction that the film will take, and the film flows smoothly from there on.

Alex is a terrific character, played almost to perfection by Daniel Bruhl. His journey throughout the film seems to be the opposite of his younger counterparts. At first he embraces commercialism, and doesn't waste time getting a new job, but over time he clings more to the old ways. He rejects commercialism, imagining Westerners as fat men who sit by swimming pools and eat triple cheeseburgers. There is one scene where Alex is throwing worthless old GDR currency off the roof of a building, but even that blows back into his face, showing that he cannot escape the ghost of the communistic past.

The prevailing theme in the film is that change is difficult, and people react very differently to it. Many embrace the changes, especially the young, while others lament the loss of their slower, more stable past. Some are driven to drink, while others simply complain about what the state of society has become. Everyone, however, feels a great deal of nostalgia, and even if they prefer their new surroundings, they can't help but be pleased when reminded of how simple their lives were before.

Score: 9/10

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