Thursday, November 30, 2006

Goodbye, Lenin

Just before the Wall comes down in 1989, Alex's mother suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma which lasts almost a year. When she wakes, in a very delicate state, Alex decides that she must never suffer the shock of finding out what has become of her beloved DDR. She had been heroically dedicated to the state ever since her husband had fled to the West leaving her alone with two children. No that it no longer exists, Alex must recreate it in her bedroom, which he does by raiding the rubbish heaps and abandoned houses all around him.

Goodbye, Lenin is a sweet and affectionate film, but one built on concentric layers of lies. There is the great lie of the state itself which must hide behind socialist bombast, censorship and the Wall. There is the lie about the fate of the DDR that Alex tells his mother. Nor is she entirely innocent. She confesses to Alex and his sister eventually that their father did not abandon them. He had been driven away by the Party that he had refused to join, and she had been meant to follow him with the children to the West. He had waited for and written to them begging her to come, but she did not have the courage to take that fatal step. So she hid his letters, told her children he had deserted them and threw herself into social usefulness. She admits that it was the biggest mistake of her life, and wishes only to see him once more.

When she suffers a second heart attack, Alex goes to find his father and bring him to her bedside warning him not to let on that there is now only one Germany. Just before they arrive at the hospital room, we have a glimpse inside to where Alex's Russian girlfriend, who was disgusted by the deception he practiced on his mother, is relieving her of it. She leaves the room as Alex's father enters. It is a lovely moment, and a very moving one. All the layers of lies are heaped one on top of the other, the final one being that the mother doesn't let on to her ex-husband or to Alex that she knows. Indeed, the viewer cannot be sure that she has acknowledged the truth since she gives no sign of it.

It is so fitting. Yet there is nothing of bitterness about the film. Because it is played in the grey key of nostalgia for a communal penury, lightened by the love of a son for his mother, we get none of the anger you would expect for this sandcastle of lies that has all but buried them. Far from it, the triumphant West is symbolised (or tokenised) by Coca-Cola whose bright red tankers pour through the sullen Berlin streets and whose massive banners dress the concrete of its buildings. Somehow you are left with the feeling that life leaves you with two choices: idealistic futility or pragmatic and spiritually squallid gaudiness.

No comments: