A Sparkling Comedy

in 48th Valladolid International Film Festival

by Alvaro Sanjurjo Toucón

German director Wolfgang Becker has declared that his film is not about the fall of the Berlin wall and the German reunification. However, the interpretation of this interesting (yet not fully achieved) film goes beyond the aims stated by the director and co-writer (with Bern Lightenberg).

The story starts short before the fall of the Berlin wall. Christiane, a communist activist, divorced mother in her fifties who has been decorated by the authorities of the German Democratic Republic, is in a coma. When she finally recovers, the communist Germany is only a ghost, and the only ones missing it are the former members of the “nomenklatura”.

To prevent Christiane from having a stroke, her son decides to hide the rapid social, political and economic changes from her, by making up an artificial environment in her own flat. In this way, the woman will watch (by means of video tapes) old TV programs from the communist era, and she will host young activists and old comrades, as part of a plot invented by her son. Thus, her private world, this socialist universe which had been her reason to live, remains unchanged.

Becker plays a game of references that can be appreciated throughout the movie. References are not only historical, but also cinematographic, paying tribute to masters of comedy Ernst Lubitsch and his disciple Billy Wilder.

Historically, this artificial universe that surrounds Christiane, can be associated with Lenin’s last months, when individual issues of the “Pravda” were specially printed in order to show him an idyllic view of the Soviet Union. These images are used to criticize acridly a system where the will of the leader prevails over a tough and not at all pleasant reality.

Cinematographically speaking, Becker uses efficiently elements from the political satires of Lubitsch and Wilder, in spite of not having their “magic touch”.

The role of Christiane is played by eastern German actress Katrin Saas. She is, in her own way, a “Ninotcha” (Lubitsch, 1939), a hardened political leader, intimately revealing a sensitive woman. And it is precisely near the end of “Good bye, Lenin!” where this ambiguity is vigorously shown, depicting a humanistic, somehow tender, portrait of the character. In turn, the rulers’ point of view (present by means of old news programmes) is seen as critic and ironic, since reality becomes too overwhelming to stand the old communist discourse. Lubitsch first used this resource in “To be or not to be” (1940).

However, judging the communist world is not enough for Wolfgang Becker. He allows the film to take a critical look at the consumist society that came afterwards, though highlighting the advantages of the ideological freedom (unmistakable reminiscences of Wilder’s “One, two, three!”).

In the making of the film, East Germans accepted the communist doctrine as a sort of religious principle – perhaps an indirect reference to their nazi past, too. This can be appreciated when Lenin’s statue carried by a helicopter seems to be blessing for the last time a society going through a deep crisis. Somehow, a simile of the Christ overflying Rome in Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”.

This vodevilesque, sparkling comedy (even though not comparable to a Lubitsch masterpiece), does not lack a dramatic side. Christiane, like the Gloria Swanson of “Sunset Boulevard” (Wilder, 1950) is a prisoner of a past world no longer existent, the only world where she could fight her inner ghosts and become a heroine for the masses.

Becker claimed that he did not intend to compare the acceptance to the communist and the nazi regimes by the German people, though this is still a controversial issue.

In the light of all these indirect references, the plot of the film: a son’s attempt to preserve her mother’s world in order not to hurt her, appears as a valid excuse, but undoubtedly of less importance.

“Good Bye, Lennin!” is not a great film, is does not aim at being it, but an effective, well-paced comedy. Had Lubistsch or Wilder directed the film, it would have been memorable. What can’t be denied is that it is a valid testimony of our time, built on a scaffold of effective and vodevilesque humour.