GOODBYE, LENIN! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)

Few events in one’s life match the trauma and tragedy of the death of one’s mother, and because it trivializes this in a flurry of unconscionable ways I cannot delight in Wolfgang Becker’s jaded Goodbye, Lenin! the way others apparently do. When I saw this film the first time in a theater, the audience was well pleased, laughing and weeping heartily. But this calculating, facile and manipulative film seems even worse on a second viewing, this time with me alone facing the television screen, as East German schoolteacher Christiane Kerner (though not alone) does so often in the film. I am in the enraged minority, for Goodbye, Lenin! won German Film Awards as best film and for Becker’s direction, and the European Film Award as best film. Whereas others find a serious reflection on the demise of the German Democratic Republic embedded in a warm, humane comedy, I find instead a heartless, soulless piece of work, despite its high level of technical accomplishment.

Kerner (sweetly played by Katrin Saß), upon seeing her son, Alexander, street-protesting the Berlin Wall and brutalized by police, suffers a heart attack that lands her in a coma. Eighteen-to-twentyish Alexander (Daniel Brühl, in an uninspired performance that nevertheless grabbed a festoon of best actor prizes), intent on his mother’s revival, keeps patient, loving vigil in the hospital. This first small movement of the film is unassailable and authentically moving. The considerable remainder, though, triggered by Mom’s waking up, is fraudulent in the extreme—strained TV sitcom stuff, with forays into lugubrious soap opera.

Christiane was committed to GDR’s socialist state. During the eight months in 1989-90 when she is in a coma, however, the Berlin Wall has come down and the state she believed in has ceased to exist. Coca Cola has moved in, along with the garish freedom of exploitable sexuality, former West Germans, the swastika as a form of graffiti, indicating an expansion of West German neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism, and, of course, widespread unemployment for former East Germans. It is Alexander’s bright idea to attempt to arrange things so that his mother’s recovery at home is undisturbed by all these and other changes that might break her heart, killing her. This entails increasingly farfetched machinations on the boy’s part, such as passing off “East German news reports” he has had made and passing the tapes off as current television broadcasts. He is also required to orchestrate family and neighbors in a continuation of the elaborate (and, for me, irritating) deception. His mother’s doctor had warned Alexander not to take Christiane out of hospital, which the doctor (accurately) predicts will result in a second heart attack and her death; but the boy would not be able to arrange things there to sustain what he believes is a necessary deception—an attempt to keep his mother’s world, for her, intact. Alexander narrates the film, looking back; a closing remark announces his conviction that his mother died happy and that is the most important thing.

Three tricks are the basis for the misconception that there is some sort of depth to this preposterous premise. One is the specious notion that the film might be read subversively as an exposure of Alexander’s self-delusion that everything he does is for the best. But, in fact, the uncritical tone with which the film everywhere greets this boy makes unmistakable the extent to which Becker sides with his protagonist against reality. Rather, Becker and his co-writers have planted the possibility of the alternative interpretation to give their film the appearance of sanity and complexity—a repellent stroke of complacency and trickery. So little is Alexander truly made responsible for his mother’s premature death that the event coincides with the immediate aftermath of a terrible confession she makes to her family, unraveling a shameful, guilty secret (more about which, in due course). Another trick is the open possibility that Christiane, during the long deception to which she is subjected, knows or at least suspects more of the truth than she is letting on. Throughout, Alexander has to come up with one tortured lie after another to explain things his mother notices outside her bedroom window and, on one excursion while her son is dozing, outside on the street. After a while, would anyone but a fool not become suspicious? Here, too, the film manipulates us by having it both ways: Alexander succeeds in lovingly hoodwinking Mom, but the possibility also exists she is reciprocating by lovingly hoodwinking him. This latter tease of his audience finds Becker again whipping up an aura of complexity for his shallow, really (when you think about it) cruel endeavor. Finally, this trick leads to another trick that replaces what might have been the film’s beating heart. In order to reconcile reality and Christiane’s political persuasion, Alexander invents an image of GDR more in line with how he would have liked the nation to be as opposed to the way it was. In turn, this is meant to provide a heartsocking index of how alienated East German youth felt as a result of the bleak, “unfree” reality of GDR that daily constrained their lives. Thus Becker gives the film the appearance of a political dimension in the tantalizing form of an ironical reflection. But it’s all adolescent self-pity (smoke) and mirrors.

What, of course, makes all this revoltingly cheap and twisted is that Becker pays lip service to the ill effects of the West Germanization of East Germany. That swastika on the elevator wall is there; Becker shows it all right, but the shot lasts a split second. Similarly, Alexander’s older sister hangs around in order to contest her brother’s hoodwinking scheme with her cynical commentary, thus allowing Becker to have it again both ways. Watching Goodbye, Lenin! is like watching warped, manipulative Hollywood movies such as Rain Man, Schindler’s List and The Sixth Sense. The fact that it is German, not American, doesn’t make it one bit better.

By making the occasion of Christiane’s illness and death a vehicle for these grafted-on political “resonances” trivializes this character’s death in the extreme. Paradoxical, isn’t it? Things here are reduced to “resonances”; Becker’s schematic mind cannot accommodate the reality of the human death over which he nonetheless jerks every tear in sight, and he drags us through this death of his one decent character twice, mind you—heart attack after heart attack. In order to further obscure how detestable Alexander’s activities are, moreover, he concocts for Lara for the boy, a Soviet girlfriend, a visiting nursing student. Their romance is irrelevant, just fancifully interjected to make Alexander seem more “normal”—and to add yet another wrinkle of contrivance if our minds wander to the big changes in store for Lara back home.

Christiane’s “secret” is loathsome soap opera. What nonsense! Christiane has deceived her son and daughter into believing that their father abandoned the family for another woman in West Germany. The truth is this: a doctor, he couldn’t get work in East Germany because he refused to join the Communist Party. Therefore, long ago, he used the occasion of his participation in a medical conference on the west side of The Wall to flee to greener pastures. He arranged for Christiane and the kids to follow. Christiane, wedded idealistically to GDR despite knowing, through her spouse’s experience, its hard reality, and herself fearful that authorities would confiscate her children, chose to remain behind. Becker thus gives Christiane a Sophie’s Choice that inadvertently shows how heartless and soulless he is. He manipulates Christiane while he manipulates us. He may actually believe that a man does the right thing by choosing money over family—that somehow this is nobler than choosing another woman over family. Those of us who do not lack a heart, however, will see the better solution for which the doctor might have opted. For the sake of his family, he could have joined the Party.

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