20 May 2013

Monday Film Review: Farewell

 One of my favorite films (I don't care about the haters out there) is rather conventional, relatively well-known for a foreign film, and deals with the time shortly before and after the fall of the Wall.  The main actor is pretty hunky and it's in German.  Good Bye, Lenin! is a general crowd pleaser, I know, and it will hardly be a surprise that I love it and it will keep a soft spot in my heart.  Like Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), it's palatable for an American audience; my husband is a relatively good barometer for American responses and he liked it.

The bittersweet story of the Kerner family in east Berlin is touching and truthful.  The movie opens with Alex Kerner and his sister Ariane watching a television broadcast of Sigmund Jähn in space, with a voice over from Alex about his admiration for the first German in space.  In the background, his mother, Christiane, is being questioned by two men about the whereabouts of her husband.  It becomes clear that he defected west and she is being held under scrutiny.  After staying in a mental hospital for a bout of silence, Christian returns to her family and removes reminders of her husband; she puts her whole heart into making communism work.  Alex Kerner's voice over says, "From then on, [she] was married to our socialist fatherland."  Fast forward to 1989, we see Alex hanging around Alexanderplatz, unimpressed by the state celebration, even calling the party leaders "alten Säcke" (old sacks).  He participates in an anti-government protest that evening and when his mother happens across him being arrested, she collapses onto the ground, leaving her in a coma.  During her coma, the Wall falls and east Berlin rapidly westernizes, the Kerner family included.  When she wakes up, Alex realizes that her fragile condition could be jeopardized by recent events and sets out to pretend that the DDR still exists.  Though Christiane is confined to her bedroom, this elaborate ruse takes a life of its own as Alex brings his girlfriend Lara, his sales partner Denis, and Ariane's western boyfriend Rainer on board.  His efforts to keep the DDR alive leads Alex to create a false DDR, one he wished had existed, while confronting the mystery surrounding his father's disappearance.

The film brings a light and humorous touch to that tumultuous time period.  The rapid westernization of east Berlin was more difficult than it seemed - Alex and Ariane have to adjust to a new reality in which their work history and academic degrees don't mean anything.  The world they knew, as awful as it was, was familiar to them and the shift was not easy, even on the young.  Christiane's friends show even greater difficulty to adjust and "get up to speed".  Everything was new, exciting, and yet terrifyingly unfamiliar.  What I love most about the movie is Alex creating his ideal DDR because the project leads him to understand his own sentimentality and attachment to the non-existent country.  This "Ostalgie" (a German word play on 'nostalgia' and 'east') is treated with respect, which is not always the case.  We see the honest struggle, as well as the dizzying pace, despite Alex's enthusiasm for the new order and get a tiny glimpse of the difficulty these citizens faced.  Watching it with my husband, it became clear to me that there are many cultural aspects that would whiz past viewers (like when the western doctor uses "Amnesie" and Lara senses the Kerner's confusion and adds, "Gedächtnisverlust").  Despite this, it gives the viewer a peek into what we assume was an easy switch to capitalism.  Alex is a truly sympathetic character and acts as the bridge between the old and new orders, which can mediate the viewers' experiences as well.  There are also some truly funny moments.  Any time Christiane dictated a complaint letter, I was laughing ("The population of the DDR does not consist solely of young ice princesses and exquisitely slim comrades").  Denis and Alex filming the Aktuelle Kamera had some great moments of hilarity and honest friendship. It has everything without being overly sentimental and brings home the real casualties in the DDR.

I highly recommend Good Bye, Lenin! for a fun, yet bittersweet look at die Wende (the turnaround).