By Steven G. Kellman
A German Rip Van Winkle, Christiane Kerner (Sass) collapses into a coma on October 7, 1989. She awakens, eight months later, to a world utterly transformed. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and Christiane, a patriotic citizen of East Germany, is now living in eastern Germany, part of a newly unified nation whose guiding principle is consumerism, not Communism. However, Christiane's doctor advises her son, Alex (Bruhl), that the patient's health remains extremely fragile; any shock will kill her. Alex sets about trying to shelter his Marxist mother from any intimation that the German Democratic Republic no longer exists. "We were at the center of the world, where things were finally happening," exclaims Alex, whose enthusiastic voice is heard as narrator. But the young man devises increasingly elaborate strategies to keep his mother convinced that nothing at all has happened, that the chill is still on the Cold War.
Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye, Lenin! is thus built upon a play within a film, a spectacle staged by Alex to insulate his mother from real-life historical drama. In Luigi Pirandello's Henry IV, friends conspire to convince a madman that he is a 12th-century German king. Confined to bed in her apartment, retrofitted with the cheap, drab furnishings of Soviet Eastern Europe, Christiane, too, is made to think she inhabits a world that no longer exists. Alex's sister, Ariane (Simon), who takes a job at Burger King, embraces the new free-market economy and opposes the scheme to dupe their dear mother. But Alex persists, feeding the woman with beguiling lies and the reassuringly shoddy products no longer available in the newly privatized local groceries. When Christiane wants to watch TV, Alex and a filmmaker friend produce sham news reports that extol the East and lambaste the West. While unified Berlin morphs into a cosmopolitan, open city, Alex becomes the urban planner of a Potemkin village in which Christiane is the sole resident.
Joseph Stalin is today more popular in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe than he deserves to be. Good Bye, Lenin! is infused with Ostnostalgie (nostalgia for the East), the term that Germans coined to signify regret for the ancient Communist regime. Alex spends much time desperately seeking East German Spreewald pickles, which, though inferior to the delicacies now available from Western exporters, provide his mother with a taste that cannot be replaced.
Engaged in a Quixotic quest to restore a world that has vanished forever, Alex understands that his mother was an idealist who was as oblivious to the crude realities of the German Democratic Republic as she is to the triumph of liberal democracy. "She believed in a country that never existed," he observes, but he also knows that the counterfeit East Germany he has fabricated is equally false. "The GDR I created for her became one I would have wanted for myself," he acknowledges. In Good Bye, Lenin!, where it is never entirely clear when Christiane becomes more aware than Alex thinks she is, both freedom and security are grand illusions. •