I watched Goodbye Lenin on DVD recently – the German comedy, or perhaps satire, on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of East German regime. In Germany it outgrossed Harry Potter when it was released in 2003.
The plot in outline, and without spoiling: Christiane Kerner has been a devoted supporter of the East German state since her husband defected to the West 15 years earlier. She collapses into a coma shortly before the Wall comes down. When she comes around, a few months later, her son Alex decides that the shock of learning about reunification would kill her. So he enrols his sister, girlfriend, workmate and neighbours in an elaborate pretence so that his mother doesn’t find out.
Of course, she has her suspicions, for example when a giant Coca-Cola banner is unfurled on the building opposite her apartment. But these are kept in check through an endless supply of fake news bulletins, inventively generated by Alex’s ‘Westie’ video technician workmate Denis.
One of the striking things about the film is the way in which it allows the complaints about the unification process – the dismissals, the loss of savings, the loss of favourite foods – to surface through the story.
The criticism that’s been made of it is that it has nothing to say about the East German Securitate, the Stasi, and its huge apparatus of surveillance and coercion. It’s true that Goodbye Lenin isn’t The Lives of Others. But it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes film can work more subtly, and the theme of deception, of things which are known but concealed, is embedded all the way through the story.
“When does it stop?”, asks Alex’s girlfriend, Lara, the film’s ‘centre of good’. It doesn’t, and as the deception continues, we discover the other deceptions which followed the father’s defection to the West, the stories which families keep from one another. The political, it turns out, is personal.