Review: Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) ★★★½

I am generally not a fan of sentimental films. That is not to say that I think films should lack strong emotion, only that certain ones elicit emotion in a way that is simplistic to the point of being patronizing and grotesque. Good Bye, Lenin! flirts with sentimentality a little too much, but in the end it has a strong enough voice to overcome its more base qualities. The film is very unique, both in its story and in its overall form, and this is what pulls it above other “quirky” tragicomedies.

I cannot name any other dramatic comedies surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that is not all that separates Good Bye, Lenin! from the crowd. There is an approach in the direction that draws the audience into a far-fetched plot with relative ease. We are made to laugh at the predicament, but still sympathize with the devotion that drives the characters over each new hurdle. If nothing else, it must be said that Good Bye, Lenin! is an effective film. It offers an interesting approach to a monumental part of modern history, and though the cracks occasionally show at times, Good Bye, Lenin! ultimately prevails.

The film begins in October of 1989 in East Berlin. Alex (Daniel Bruhl) lives with his mother, Christiane (Katrine Sass), his sister, Ariane (Maria Simon), and Ariane’s infant daughter. Alex’s father abandoned the family and fled to West Germany years prior, pushing Christiane to support the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany with an almost fanatical fervor. While attending an anti-government rally, Alex falls into police custody and Christiane, having witnessed his arrest, suffers a heart attack that puts her into a coma. During a visit to the hospital to see his mother, Alex meets her nurse, Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), and the two quickly begin a relationship. Shortly after Christiane’s accident, the Berlin Wall falls, and capitalism is introduced to East Berlin. Over the following eight months, Alex and his sister grow accustomed to the drastic changes, only to have Christiane awaken in a severely weakened state. The doctor warns Alex that any shock or distress will very likely kill her. Afraid that the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent collapse of Christiane’s life work would prove too much for her, Alex lies about the current state of affairs in Germany, convincing his mother that the Socialist Party has made great advances in her absence. As Christiane begins to recover and becomes more self-sufficient, Alex has an increasingly difficult time maintaining the facade and protecting his mother from discovering the new world outside her window.

Good Bye Lenin blindfold
Alex goes to unbelievable lengths to shield his mother from reality (Good Bye, Lenin!, 2003)

Despite its imperfections, Good Bye, Lenin! does many things right; first and foremost, it allows itself to be comedic. Given how implausible the premise is, it would be a shame if director Wolfgang Becker had attempted a purely dramatic film. However, it still leans far too much on the tragedy of the mother/son relationship, insofar as Alex’s entire scheme is predicated on the belief that his mother will die very soon. It is a film about a son’s unflinching devotion to his mother, but there are frequently awkward shifts in tone throughout the story, as if the filmmakers were never quite sure what kind of film they wanted to make. It meanders back and forth between serious and silly, and the lengths that Alex goes to often border on the absurd, which would have been fine if it had been crafted in a way that was purely comedic, but because the story is so dramatic and generally takes itself a bit too seriously, the unbelievable coincidences and over-the-top situations just come across as cheap, lazy storytelling.

This is not to say that Good Bye, Lenin! is a bad film. It is most definitely a well-made, unique story, with solid performances and direction. While it flirts with certain ideological and philosophical quandaries (namely capitalism versus socialism), they are never really discussed in-depth, instead they merely serve as the backdrop for Alex’s complicated relationship with Christiane. Nonetheless, the film is highly enjoyable; however, for those of us who are a bit too cynical for those sugary-sweet stories in which love conquers all and family is the only thing that truly matters in life, Good Bye, Lenin! can be a bit too much for its own good.

Good Bye, Lenin! is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.

Rating: ★★★½ stars out of 5

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