Dismanteling a Lifetime

in 21st Miami International Film Festival

by Mila Voinikova

The further away in time we go from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the easier it becomes to see and assess clearly what exactly has changed in the world and in people’s lives. The black and white judgments about “before” and “after” are gone (I hope), and deeper and more complicated treatments are still to come. Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! concentrates mainly on the “during” process, because although things changed very fast, it didn’t all happen in one night.

The essence of the plot is also a metaphor for how many people felt about the wind of change that irreversibly stirred their lives and subverted their values. A woman falls into a coma in the last days of socialism and wakes up about eight months later in a totally different world. Fearing another heart attack, her family creates a fake reality for her in which everything is still the same. From here stems the comedy and suspense of the film; it seems dangerously easy for the film to become a pure comedy based on the contrasts between the old and the new. Luckily, this is not the case with Good Bye, Lenin! The drama and the comedy are intertwined in an elegantly balanced way. More importantly, the film intelligently avoids any preaching – the notions of good and bad are not a political issue but rather apply to human actions.

Naturally, the levels of engagement with the film vary according to the background of the spectator. I laughed more often then my co-jurors and suspect that a German would grasp even more of the jokes and cultural references. However, the film succeeds in balancing the different channels through which it addresses regional and international audiences.

In the last few years, the fall of socialism hasn’t been a major focus in cinema. Other world events have attracted attention, yet socialism has rarely been approached with a subtle sense of humor. Returning to this period may seem a bit odd and not socially significant, but Good Bye, Lenin! suggests that the chapter is worth reopening. It would be an exaggeration to say that it treats the subject from an entirely new perspective, yet it definitely encourages us to look back on this upheaval from today’s vantage point and outline more clearly some of the salient features of the change. The film skillfully negotiates the signs that differentiate “before” and “after”. The dismantled statue of Lenin flying over Berlin is not just a hollow symbol, but is integrated into the general structure of the film, based on the use of signs. The commodities that flowed past the Iron Curtain stand in for social and psychological changes but are far from signifying pro- or anti-consumerism.

Good Bye, Lenin! is one of the best films in competition at the Miami International Film Festival; however, it suffers from one major flaw – the murky motivation of the Mother. It is strange that a woman who wanted to flee East Germany came to commit her life to socialist values. I wouldn’t claim that it’s impossible, but a clearer explanation would add complexity and depth to the film. Overall, it creates one of the best metaphors for the socialist era since Underground, yet it is also a metaphor we have seen before: life in isolation, lies, the sudden shock of waking up. The major achievement of Goodbye Lenin! over Underground is that it doesn’t deal with the issues in terms of right and wrong.