Sunday, October 08, 2006

Goodbye Lenin! (2003)

Goodbye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)

After being left by her husband in favor of a more lucrative life in West Germany, Christiane (Katrin Sass) has decided to spend her life raising her two children properly and loyally serving socialist East Germany as a teacher. When her children grew up to become adults, nothing much has changed except that the unification of the two Germanys are coming close. Of course, the characters in the film do not know that, and when Christiane suffers a heart attack followed by an 8-month coma which is conveniently timed during the breaking of the Berlin Wall, the two children decide to keep the unification a secret from their mother who awakens without knowledge of the quick events that happened during the time she was unconscious.

It's an ingenious concept, I thought. A concept that is not entirely free from ridiculous inconsistencies, but in the end, is truly compelling. The democratic world saw the unification of Germany as the triumph of capitalism, but the inconvenient truth of a forcedly forgotten idealism towards socialism remains in the heart of former East Germans. Goodbye Lenin! seeks to visualize the hidden emotional impact of the unification by cooking up a comedic farce that is both emotionally deep and touching.

Wolfgang Becker directs the concept with able hands. Although there is a needless reliance to tired comedy, Becker still succeeds in creating a humorous attack to the historical event that this democratic world has considered a triumph. One scene that is charmingly funny yet also heartaching is when Christiane finally goes out from her room to discover a neighborhood that has changed since the time she suffered from coma. Katrin Sass walks weakly down her apartment, her face stoic from the lies that her children has supplied her ego, but is also unable to understand the presence of West Germans in her neighborhood, capitalist signs, and in one brilliant stroke of visual humor, a helicopter flying carrying the enormous bust of Lenin. But Becker doesn't direct the scene with humor in mind. He supplies the scene with a heartracing soundtrack that accompanies the resulting internal disagreement of the lies of the children and the mother's own reconciling of what she sees, and the effect is quite astounding.

Then Becker makes a huge cinematic mistake. He decides that the lie should go on, covering the amazing scene with another lie the son cooks up. I thought the brilliantly directed scene went down as an annoying emotional tease. I was expecting a difficult reckoning for the mother --- an uncovering of the life and the hard hitting fact that everything she lived for has turned into nothing when capitalism has ruled over socialism. Instead, Becker introduces more melodramatic elements into his film including a touching but not too original reunification of children and father, and so on. Sure, Becker, by following more commercial instincts, has made a more friendly film --- one that doesn't disagree with conventional wisdom of what is pleasant and acceptable. But upon deciding that, he forego what could've been truly impressive and devastating --- a mother breaking down from the treachery (although probably reasonable and rational) of the two most important parts of her life.


drei said...

man i love this film! felt like reading milan kundera - emotional story with a strong historical backdrop. of course kundera was into czech communism, and this one was into the capitalism struggle of germany. and if you've noticed, the musical score is really familiar, some tracks even recycled. and why not, it's done by yann tiersen, the same guy who did the score for amelie!

lenin is a really great film achievement!

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks for the insights, drei. I did notice that the score was awfully familiar. I liked the fact that Goodbye Lenin! strived to be utterly comedic, and was successful at that. Didn't like its more conventional third act, but that was supplanted by its humorous and appropriate finale.