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Alex (Daniel Bruhl) grows up in socialist East Germany, but his father leaves for the West while he’s still a young boy. When in October 1989 his proudly socialist mother Christiane (Katrin Sass) sees him arrested during a demonstration, she has a heart attack and goes into an eight month coma. When she finally wakes up, Alex draws his family and friends into a conspiracy to prevent her from learning that the world she knew and loved has gone forever. Socialism is not only alive and well but envied by the West, and Germany has not been unified. The sham puts a lot of strain on him and his immediate circle, including his girlfriend Lara (Chulpan Khamatova). But his mother has some secrets of her own.

Review by Jake Wilson: 
This rueful comic allegory about the fall of the Berlin Wall is bourgeois cinema in every sense, but skilful on its own terms – the actors and the soft-focus images are attractive, and the plot complications are ingenious if a bit drawn out. Mainly, the filmmakers deserve credit for their nuanced treatment of an intrinsically important theme: though the director and co-writer are both West Germans, many scenes have the intimacy of family jokes, fashioned to evoke collective memories of life in the old GDR. Half-forgotten rituals and images, rendered instantly obsolete under capitalism, are fetishized throughout by the camera as well as the hero (one rather heavy-handed running gag concerns the latter’s glee in uncovering old government-branded jars of coffee and pickles). 

For viewers who can’t directly share this local nostalgia, the film also works as a “universal” fable about the generation gap: struggling to stay loyal to both his mother and his new Russian girlfriend, Alex’s solution is to evade the responsibilities of maturity by literally living in the past. The implicit view of Communism as a childhood fairy-tale to be outgrown may be bogus and sentimental, and the accompanying sexual politics are comparably dubious, but it’s still possible to admire the film’s deft manipulation of its chosen metaphors. 

One inspired scene is almost enough to raise Good Bye Lenin to the level of a classic: as part of a fake news broadcast, Alex and his budding filmmaker friend detour real-life footage of the Wall’s collapse, throwing it into reverse and making it appear that West Germans are flocking to enter the workers’ paradise of East Berlin. So much comedy and sadness is contained in that one image that the rest of the film seems almost redundant: as Alex comments, this is history as it should have been, and it’s heartbreaking that we should now find such fantasy so patently absurd. 

Published May 26, 2004

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CAST: Daniel Bruhl, Katrin Sass, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon, Florian Lukas, Alexander Beyer, Burghart Klaussner

DIRECTOR: Wolfgang Becker

SCRIPT: Bernd Lichtenberg, Wolfgang Becker

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16: 9 widescreen

SPECIAL FEATURES: Production notes

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: 21st Century Pictures Video

DVD RELEASE: May 26, 2004

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