I AM ONE OF THOSE WOMEN WHO HATE TO SHOP. In department stores I feel oppressed, as though the mountains of merchandise towering over me might sap my soul. Even as an adolescent, I joined girlfriends on their periodic bike-rides to "The Mall" (always spoken in reverential tones) only because I enjoyed the wind whipping through my hair as we dodged cars and acorns on streets lined with beautiful eucalyptus and California oaks. I got through the window shopping part by thinking of the five-mile return on our trusty three-speed steeds.
Thus, whenever I saw documentaries displaying the nearly empty shelves of stores under communist regimes, I did not feel as horrified as my peers. Instead, I secretly thought—if even naively—how much easier it would make life if only a few choices were available to consumers; maybe then my girlfriends would join me on their bicycles purely for the joy of the ride. It never occurred to me that, under a communist regime, we might have to wait years even to purchase one bicycle.
What disturbed me about Communism, at the time, were not the empty shelves. I was disturbed by the loss of another kind of freedom: East Germans could not ride their bikes into Western Germany at will. Especially horrific was an image that dominated the political landscape of my childhood: the Berlin Wall. Seared into my memory is a clip from a black and white documentary shown in a grammar school classroom: in the film, as twenty-somethings sneaked over the Wall, barbed wire caught the sweater of one woman, exposing her naked breasts to the camera. Though prepubescent boys in my class hooted, I ached for the woman, thinking how desperate her situation must have been if she could still smile in delight, her exposure nothing in comparison to the confinement that she was escaping.
My conflicted responses to Communism reached an apex late in 1989. Shopping for a wedding gift in a trendy department store, my throat tightening from commodity claustrophobia, I noticed a table of cute boxes set up next to the china displays. A sign above it read something like, "Buy part of the Berlin Wall! Only $10, each box contains verification of its authentic contents." That led to the one and only impulse buy of my life—perhaps because the fall of the Wall represented to me throat-opening release. I wanted to purchase part of that freedom.
These memories came flooding back to me as I watched Good Bye Lenin! on DVD. Released in 2002, the German film (with English subtitles) focuses its fictional tale on circumstances surrounding the fall of the Wall. Including archival footage of 1989 and 1990 events, the delightful film is narrated from East Berlin by a boy close in age to the earlier documentary's breast-baring escapee. Filled with charmingly humorous and tender moments, Good Bye Lenin! delivers its own conflicted response to Communism.
Alex Kerner, the narrator, is the son of Christiane, a true believer in the communist regime. When her husband, a doctor, flees to the West, Christiane becomes "married to the Socialist Fatherland," throwing herself into support and guidance of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). She not only leads nationalist youth programs but also writes letters with constructive criticism about the ugly and ill-fitting clothes produced by nationalized factories. The intensity of her commitment is symbolized in an early scene: ironing as she dictates a letter about clothing flaws, Christiane punctuates her sentences by spitting on the hot iron, which sends out a sizzle almost as searing as her prose.
Things change on 7 October 1989, when, on her way to receive a government award for her many contributions, Christiane witnesses two loves in conflict: her son Alex, having joined a peaceful march demanding freedom of the press, is beaten by state police. After screaming, "Stop it!" Christiane falls to the ground, a heart attack sending her into a coma.
ALEX, PERHAPS THE MOST ATTENTIVE SON IN THE history of cinema, spends hours by Christiane's side, talking to her as she lies comatose in the hospital bed. When he cannot be there, he has recorded tapes of his voice playing so she can still hear his voice. His dedication throughout the film would drip with sentimentality if not for comic moments, as when, leaning over the hospital bed to get a better look at nurses' legs, Alex accidentally dismantles the drip tube in Christiane's vein, one drip subverting the other.
After eight months, Christiane finally wakes from her coma. However, the doctor warns Alex and his sister Ariane, "Your mother's life still is in danger. . . . She wouldn't survive a second heart attack. You must protect her from any kind of excitement." A close up of the doctor's desk signals the difficulty of following this advice: on a piece of granite sits a piece of the Berlin Wall, with an engraved plaque: "18.8.1961 + 9.11.1989." During her coma, the socialist government to which Christiane dedicated her life had crumbled: "everything she believed in vanished in just a few months." And her children worry that this discovery will kill her—quite literally.
MUCH OF THE FILM'S ENTERTAINMENT STEMS FROM the clever ways that Alex attempts to conceal from his mother the fall of the Wall. Though he and Ariane had discarded their state-produced shoddy furniture and clothing as soon as new products entered from the West, Alex gathers enough items from storage and garbage heaps to restore to its pre-fall state the room at home where Christiane must remain bedridden. No longer able to purchase his mother's favorite foodstuffs produced by the socialist state, Alex scavenges for old jars and bottles, pouring superior products from the West into the austerely-labeled containers. To solve the problem of television, Alex arranges for his friend, Denis, an aspiring (though comically untalented) film director, to make socialist-oriented videos that appear, through a hidden VCR, right when Christiane wants to watch the news.
Though Good Bye Lenin! exposes the austerity and confinement of socialist totalitarianism, it also indicts Western capitalism. After the border is opened to the West, red banners honoring Lenin are merely replaced with red banners advertising Coca-Cola. At one point, the camera focuses on a ritualized changing of the guard in front of a neoclassical building, our vision interrupted when a red car, a red truck, and then a red semi go by, all advertising Coke.
The changing of the guard from socialism to capitalism is also symbolized when Alex passes through a border checkpoint, the guards too busy flirting with garishly dressed women to check his passport. In his newfound freedom, Alex heads toward a Western porn shop, where he joins a group of conservatively clad mom-and-pop patrons curiously watching a woman lick whipped cream off her own grotesquely huge breasts. In fact, much that we see of Western culture is grotesque: Alex and his girlfriend Lara attend a nightclub with performers dressed like mutants; when he visits a market that once held little on its empty shelves, Alex sees someone dressed in a huge chicken costume saunter by aisles now overflowing with canned goods. Even the new furniture being moved into worker housing is grotesque: we see a lamp shade made of shocking pink fur standing next to tacky zebra upholstery.
So when Christiane finally gets out of bed, motivated by the first steps of Ariane's infant daughter, Paula, we feel some of Alex's concern. Paula stands up and toddles to the window, enchanted by something in the sky: a blimp with "WEST" written in huge characters on its side. Taking baby steps like her granddaughter—not having walked for nearly a year—the hesitant Christiane heads toward the window, saying "Paula, you see?" Though Christiane refers to her own walking, we know that what Paula actually sees out the window could traumatize the idealistic socialist. Fortunately, by the time Christiane joins the toddler, the blimp has gone behind a building, hidden from her view— as have been most signs of the "West."
Leaving Paula in a room where the exhausted Alex snoozes in a chair, Christiane heads outside, only to encounter many strange sights: a swastika scrawled on the rickety elevator wall, a huge billboard advertising lingerie, a balloon-festooned corner lot displaying BMWs for sale. Significantly, when Christiane reaches out for something to hold her up, she grabs onto discarded state-made furniture piled along the road, items that were produced under the ideology that supports her psyche.
Next comes the most evocative image of the entire film, from which the movie takes its title. As Christiane totters in disorientation, she turns to see a shadow cross a white high rise: it is a helicopter dangling a leg-less human figure from a rope. When the helicopter comes into sight, we see that the figure is a black metal statue of Lenin, right arm outstretched, left arm clutching a book. The figure floats down the street, directly above a red car, until it fills the mise-en-scene, the arm gesturing toward us, as though in welcome. The shot cuts to the back of Christiane's head, Lenin's arm reaching out toward it, as though to bless her. Then, like the blimp that disappeared from Christiane's sight around a rectangular high rise, the helicopter does the same. This time, of course, it is Marxist-Leninism that is disappearing.
AT THAT MOMENT, ARIANE EMERGES FROM THE SUBWAY carrying shopping bags in each hand. When she sees the disoriented Christiane, Ariane quite symbolically drops the bags of Western merchandise and runs to her mother's aid. Due to this incident, Alex has Denis make another fake news video, hoping that it might allay Christiane's fears about the disappearance of Lenin from their socialist state. Showing actual news clips of Easterners escaping from East to West, Denis, pretending to be a news broadcaster, reverses the trajectory, announcing that Westerners, sick of capitalism, have been sneaking into East Berlin, bringing their decadent products with them; but, rather than force them out, the noble socialist state is giving Westerners asylum. As we watch the video being made we discover that Denis, though dressed in a suit coat as he sits behind his "news desk," wears no pants, reminding us of Lenin with no legs.
Christiane, however, who sees Denis, like Lenin, only from the waist up, is convinced by the news program. After all, it reinforces what she wants to believe: the moral superiority of socialism over capitalism. She even suggests that her family take some of the refugees from the West into their home, sharing resources so they can practice what socialism preaches. Alex states in his next voice-over, "My scheme had taken on a life of its own. The GDR I created for her increasingly became the one I might have wished for." The film, then, is not meant to be an expose of either socialism or capitalism; it is about the power, both for good and ill, of idealism.
The film symbolizes Christiane's socialist idealism in several provocative ways. Numerous scenes are filmed with green-tinted low key lighting, muting all colors into greenish shades of gray. However, in every one of these shots one red item stands out, as though to represent Christiane's idealistic hope for Marxism in the midst of East Berlin's bleak environs. When she faints during the greenish-grey protest march, she is wearing a bright red dress; as she lies comatose in her greenish-gray hospital room, a red plastic container sits on a table by her head; when Alex heads to the hospital to visit her, he walks up to a greenish-gray station to board a bright red train; while he zooms around the greenish-gray streets setting up illusions to protect her, he wears a red motorcycle helmet. The list goes on, creating the same effect as in Schindler's List (1993), where a little girl in a red coat periodically punctuates the black and white film. In Good Bye Lenin!, however, the effect is far more subtle.
More obvious as a symbol of idealism is a rocket motif that frames the narrative. The film opens with a television image of archival footage showing the first German to be sent into space: Sigmund Jahn, on 26 August 1978. As the young Alex and Ariane watch the monumental flight, enchanted by the rocket's ability to transcend the greenish-grays of quotidian existence, their mother screams at state operatives who question where her husband has gone. Institutionalized for depression after this, Christiane returns in several weeks to be greeted by Alex dressed as a rocket, as though in hope that she can transcend her despair—which she does by idealistically throwing herself into the socialist cause.
WE NEXT SEE THE TEN-YEAR-OLD ALEX OUTSIDE, shooting off another rocket of his devising: a three-foot high science project. The camera follows its vapor trail into the air, then tilts back down to earth, where we now see a twenty-one-year-old Alex sipping beer on a park bench. It is not long after this that Christiane collapses into her coma, and Alex states in a voice-over, "In her long, deep sleep she orbited like a satellite around our small planet and our even smaller republic." During Christiane's "orbit" away from psychological trauma, Alex gets a job installing satellite TV dishes: a product that establishes contact with satellites, reminding us of his desire to establish connection with his comatose mother.
When Christiane finally comes home from the hospital and asks to watch TV, Denis quips in English, "Houston, we have a problem." Their efforts to maintain Christiane's idealistic belief in the Socialist Fatherland are thus paralleled to sending a rocket into space. The head of a school where Christiane once taught importantly notes that "some comrades in the collective thought she was too idealistic," creating problems in the greenish-gray, down-to-earth "daily running" of the institution.
Good bye lenin! thus shows how idealism can be conceptualized in two ways: not only as naive escapism from down-to-earth realities, but also as the ability to maintain a visionary hope that transcends the coarse manipulations of both marketplace and state. Alex maintains the latter hope for his mother, making extreme sacrifices of time and energy while encountering criticism and outrage from others around him. But he never gives up. Even his sister Ariane despairs after seeing their father order food at the Burger King where she works. In her angry return to their apartment, a bottle of Coke slips from her hands, smashing on the floor. When her boyfriend plops a tea towel on the mess, insufficient to stop the spreading liquid, we get a visual metaphor for the spread of capitalism in East Berlin, bringing with it disturbing changes—like the return of their fleeing father—to its once controlled world. After Alex hears Ariane's news, we see him standing in the greenish-gray light of his bedroom. Behind him, a red rocket he built as a child lies sideways on a shelf. Filmed with a low-angle lens, it looks as though the rocket has pierced through his head.
Worse is that which pierces his heart. On an outing to the countryside (using a car they waited three years to purchase), Christiane tells her children that she lied about their father, who went to the West for a medical conference:
Your father didn't stay in the West because of a woman. That was a lie. When I said he never wrote, that was a lie too. He wrote letters to me, and to you, too. They're behind the kitchen cabinet.... I was supposed to follow with you. I just couldn't do it.... They could've taken you away from me... I didn't go.
Her love for socialist ideology surmounted her love for a person—for several people, in fact, since her children were forced to assume that their father rejected them. With this revelation, we are given the film's indictment of idealism, of what happens when the love of ideas supplants the love of humans. Significantly, after Christiane admits her lies she suffers another heart attack, much like her first one when her love for Alex conflicted with her love for the socialist state.
After admitting his mother once again to a hospital, Alex heads toward a red taxi sign shining in the midst of a greenish-gray street. He is stunned to see his "childhood idol": Sigmund Jahn, the first German in space. But now, rather than "telling kids about the secrets of the universe, the freedom of weightlessness and the infinite reaches of space, he was just driving a tiny, smelly Lada taxi." The film leaves ambiguous whether the taxi driver is, indeed, Jahn or just someone who looks like him, but as Alex engages the driver's services, he narrates, "And so we flew through the night as if gliding through outer space, light years from our solar system. We passed strange galaxies harboring unknown life forms and landed in Wannsee," the Western town where his father lives. There, Alex tells the surprised parent that Christiane's dying wish is to see her former husband one last time. By now we realize that Alex's idealism is different than Christiane's, for it is motivated not by ideology, but by love of his mother.
AS A FINAL EXPRESSION OF THIS LOVE, ALEX ARRANGES one last illusion for the dying woman. He has Denis produce a video that shows Sigmund Jahn becoming Secretary General of the Party and Chairman of the State Council of the GDR. The taxi driver, who plays Jahn, sits in front of a desk, with a bust of Lenin behind him, and says to the camera:
Up there in the vast emptiness of space, life on earth seems small and insignificant. You ask yourself what humanity has achieved.... In the last year, thousands have come here. People we used to consider enemies now want to live in our midst. We know our country isn't perfect, but the ideals we believe in continue to inspire people all over the world.. . . Socialism isn't about walling yourself in. It's about reaching out to others and living with them. It means not only dreaming about a better world, but making it happen. Therefore I have decided to open our country's borders.
At this point Denis cuts in footage of people destroying the Berlin Wall while "Jahn" continues:
The rat race isn't for everyone. These people want a different life. They've realized there's more to life than cars, VCRs, and television sets. They are willing to bring good will, hard work, and hope to building new lives for themselves.
This, of course, is the best of political idealism, transcending the ideologies of both capitalism and of socialism. Significantly, the filmmakers put these words in the mouth of someone who, in a rocket, rose above what holds us to earth: the gravity of material objects.
Pretending to watch Jahn's "televised" statement from her hospital bed, Christiane stares, instead, at her son who sits diagonally in front of her. Unbeknownst to him, Lara has told Christiane the truth, that "the border doesn't exist anymore; it's just one country now." We see on Christiane's face admiration for a son who would take such extreme measures to keep her happy. So when she says "Wow!" after the "broadcast," we, unlike Alex, realize that her exclamation is not about the power of socialism; it is about the power of love. The ultimate idealism, in this film, is implemented not in political agendas, but through the sacrifice of people who put the happiness of the (m)other above their own.
After Alex catapults his mother's ashes into the sky with a rocket similar to his childhood invention, we are given the last image of the film: a grainy photograph of the young Alex staring in admiration at Christiane, who stares out at us. Like the statue of Lenin floating above the streets of East Berlin, she was flawed. But, also like the statue, she extends to us a welcoming gesture, inviting us to consider that there's more to life than cars, VCRs, and television sets.
Crystal Downing teaches at Messiah College. Her book, Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers, was published recently by Palgrave Macmillan.