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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Good Bye Lenin! (2003)

Checkpoint Telstar wishes to thank Cora Buhlert for supplying German sociocultural information relevant to this review.

Screenplay by Bernd Lichtenberg and Wolfgang Becker (with contributions by Achim von Borries, Hendrik Handloegten and Christoph Silber)
Directed by Wolfgang Becker

Daniel Brühl:  Alex Kerner
Katrin Saß:  Christiane Kerner
Maria Simon:  Ariane Kerner
Chulpan Khamatova:  Lara
Florian Lukas:  Denis
Stefan Walz:  Sigmund Jähn

Once more into the breach between East and West Berlin, dear readers. Since the Berlin Wall was dismantled twenty-five years ago this month, El Santo at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting asked if I'd like to go in on some Cold War movie reviews to mark the time on our metaphorical calendars. I wish I'd thought of this earlier, because I only managed to get movies from the 1950s and 1960s reviewed during November; I certainly think something from Peter Watkins for the seventies and Val Kilmer as a hypergenius slacker at Cal Tech would have fit the bill nicely.

But enough about regrets. Onward to the future.

This film, if you're an American, is an obscure arthouse comedy from Germany starring the guy who would later be the sniper / war hero in Inglourious Basterds and the antagonist Formula 1 driver in Rush (and who will hopefully be raising his profile considerably when he's in Captain America:  Civil War in a couple years). If you're German, it's the third-highest-grossing native film in your country's history. Not knowing about it would be like a United Statesian being unaware of Jaws. One of the reasons it was so resonant with German audiences would have to be the way it addressed the German national character; it's a home-grown movie about domestic concerns. I'm sure that there are subtleties and references I won't even remotely get because I just don't have the cultural background to do so. For that matter, high school German was a long, long time ago and Frau Tate was a semi-competent teacher at best. Mostly I'll be reading the subtitles and hoping that I understand the deep structure of the film.

Alex Kerner is a young man in East Berlin--but the first we see of him is home movie footage from the late 70s (I'm enough of a cult movie geek to note that the year of his summer-vacation film clip is the same as Dawn of the Dead's theatrical release). He appears to be a perfectly happy child, and like many kids in the Cold War, he's a big fan of the space program. Sigmund Jähn, the first German into space, is a particular favorite of his. And on the day that Jähn becomes the first Deutschlander into space, plainclothes officers from the Stasi are asking Alex's mom about his father's travels out of Germany. Alex's dad defects to the West, with the ten-years-older Alex fuming over the way his father rejected his family to sleep with an "enemy of the state" in capitalist Europe. His mother takes the betrayal far worse than Alex does; she spends two months catatonic in a psychiatric hospital that is exactly as cheery and warm as "East German mental health facility" suggests.

When Alex's mother returns home she amputates his absent father from her life; among other things, she sends his clothes off in a sack with SOLIDARITY WITH MOZAMBIQUE stenciled on it. According to the voiceover, Alex's mother decided she was married to the Deutsche Demokratische Republik instead. He doesn't have a father any more, but his mother is devoted to the fatherland. She becomes very involved in the East German equivalent of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts (and the communist organization seems more enlightened about gender inclusion than the Western European or American youth organizations; there's kids of both genders singing songs and going to summer camp together in the home movie footage). 

Her efforts to swim with the tide result in, among other things, an award for exemplary citizenship at a nationally televised ceremony. Alex seems to be accepting this new reality, becoming very attached to his mother and still dreaming of space and rockets--hoping some day to be the second German in space. It's probably very important to note that Jähn is never referred to as the first East German to travel into space; he's a German first and a member of the political system second. Looking down at Earth he wouldn't be able to see any political borders; the Berlin Wall is utterly invisible from orbit. 

Ten years later, Alex is an aimless young man working at a TV repair shop and lounging around on a park bench on his day off as East Germany prepares for its 40th anniversary celebrations (the contrast between the slouching dude stifling a burp on the bench and the voiceover declaring Alex was "at the height of his masculine allure" is amusing, but it also lets us know that Alex doesn't have all that many illusions about where his life ended up and how he's living it). He's in an apartment in a tower block, living with his mother and his older sister Ariane (and his sister's infant daughter Paula), in a room full of spare electronic parts and posters for rock groups probably not approved by the Central Committee. What appears to be actual period footage of the East German Army marching by the review stands contrasts later with Alex and hundreds of other young activists taking to the streets to protest in favor of democracy.

During this protest march (for "the right to go for walks without the Wall getting in the way", according to Alex's understated and sardonic commentary), two important things happen--when Alex starts choking on a bite of an apple he brought along as a snack a pretty young student nurse from Russia named Lara whacks him on the back till he spits it out, and they click once they get a look at each other. That's the good news. The bad news is that scads of police show up to corral the protesters at first, and then to beat the tar out of them with riot batons. Alex's mom is in a taxicab trying to get to the 40th Anniversary ceremony in East Berlin but gets blocked by police trucks and has to get out to take the subway to get to the event. Which is why she gets to see her youngest child as he's snagged by a pair of police, a shock so jarring to her that she collapses to the ground. Alex tries to run to her when he sees this, and gets tossed in the back of a transport truck as prelude to a punitive beating. But his mom is listed high enough on the Party org chart that he gets pulled out of the cell where the protesters are kept and released so he can get to the hospital and find out what's going on. His sister and the doctor give him the lowdown:  His mom had a heart attack, CPR wasn't performed quickly but she did survive, albeit in a coma. The doctor can't tell Alex or his sister whether or not their mother will ever wake up.

Frau Kerner remains in her coma for a highly significant nine months; during that time the head of the Communist Party in East Germany resigns, the Berlin Wall is torn apart and the Cold War judders to a halt, symbolized to the world by the two parts of Germany reuniting to become a new nation--no longer a divided pair of countries sharing an internal border, but a new Germany that will proceed into the future as one place, just as Sigmund Jähn was a Deutschlander, not an Ostie or a Westie when he was in space. It's tempting to use mental illness as a descriptor here, with Germany suffering a decade-long psychotic break followed by the paranoid split personalities of the Cold War countries. Now that there's a brand new nation put together, it remains to be seen just what kind of nation it will be, and how the two different Germanies will work with each other to make it that nation. 

History is occurring daily in front of him, although Alex is more concerned with something much more personal at the time. While the news clips that I'm sure are utterly iconic to an actual German (rather than an American who was properly awed by the peaceful reunification of the two parts of Germany but who only saw the highlights on TV) play out his mother sleeps on in the coma. Ariane gets a job as a cog in the great capitalist machine (becoming Employee of the Month at an East Berlin Burger King, as well as dating her boss, the "class enemy" who manages the franchise). Rainer, the fast food manager, moves into the tiny apartment to be closer to Ariane, leading to a great reaction shot when Alex observes them belly dancing in their underwear and decides he doesn't want any part of that. It's a great sequence, counterpointing the changes to the nation and to the flat at the same time.

Alex also meets Lara again after accidentally knocking the drip line out of his mom's IV bottle; it looks like she shows up in his life during medical situations. Which makes sense; she's a nurse. I'm certain that having a Soviet student nurse named Lara in the film is a Dr. Zhivago reference, but I don't know enough about the German take on that movie to make much out of it. At any rate, Alex continues visiting his mother at the hospital but makes sure to do it on days that Lara is going to be on duty. He's quite attracted to Lara but doesn't make any moves towards her, at least partly because everything else in his life is getting shaken up. The TV repair shop closes and Alex gets a job installing satellite dishes (the logo of the company looking very similar to the hammer and sickle); the installation manager picks names out of buckets labeled O and W (for Ost und West) to put crews together--doing his little part for unification. Alex is paired with a film fanatic named Denis and they hit it off pretty well.

What with the new job (and the implied lack of support from the new German welfare state as opposed to the old Communist one), Alex can't visit the hospital as much as he wanted to for either reason. He rigs up a tape deck to a timer and narrates an audio diary for his mother, which is more for Alex's good than hers at this point but also lets Lara see what kind of person he is if she's around when the timer hits 5 PM and the tape starts up. Eventually they go see some kind of techno performance art Teutonic version of GWAR at a nightclub and again I flounder as I wonder if the German audiences would recognize these goofs or if they're just as obscure in their homeland as they are in United Statesia. When the pair sneaks off to hang out in an art installation and not listen to the band for a while Alex and Lara chat for a while and our young protagonist shows that he's utterly inexperienced at doobie smoking (one wouldn't typically think of the USSR as a hotbed of youth in revolt, but Lara's handling the smoke a lot better).

When he's not working, dating Lara or worrying about his mother, Alex hangs out with Denis (whose Matrix-code shirt is part of an elaborate joke cut out of the movie; just roll with it). Denis, scraping up a little extra cash like a good class enemy, has a job shooting birthday and wedding videos but what he really wants to do is direct. He's got his own kitbashed editing studio in his apartment and he's actually got some talent (view the bouquet-tossing at an outdoor wedding that turns into a Kubrick homage and be amazed). As it turns out, Alex never saw the movie that Denis is referencing; East Germany and the rest of the Communist world was extremely careful about letting Western cultural artifacts in through official channels and our protagonist isn't a big enough pop culture junkie to track stuff like that down on the black market.

Months pass and Alex starts to fit into the new routine, though he's completely aware of how much everything has changed. The day he finally takes the initiative and makes a romantic move on Lara at the hospital happens to be the very moment that his mother comes out of her coma. The physician tells Alex and Ariane the good news--it's a minor miracle that their mother ever regained consciousness. The bad news is twofold:  nobody spends that much time in a coma without some kind of long-term mental damage; at this point, the extent of Christiane's deterioration is unknown but memory loss and confusion are the likeliest possibilities. The doctor then drops another bombshell:  It's almost certain that Alex's mother isn't going to live more than another month or so, and another heart attack will definitely kill her. The doctor warns Alex that he's got to protect his mom from any kind of excitement, which will put fatal stress on her heart. Alex realizes instantly that he's got to bring Frau Kerner home to the flat; at the hospital she'll find out that there isn't an East Germany any more and that will certainly be enough of a jolt to end her life. The doctor agrees and one jump cut later plans are being made to bring Christiane home (although I'm not certain how much information she's been given about exactly what's going on).

Alex turns out to be a really shitty liar; instead of telling his mother what actually happened, he comes up with an instantly transparent lie about her collapsing in a shopping queue due to the heat, in October. In East Berlin. Back at the flat, there's a three-directional argument between the two siblings and Rainer, Ariane's new guy. Alex's plan is simple and desperate:  To the best extent possible, shield his mother from the social and political changes in the world by fixing her bedroom up the way it was back when the Communist bloc hadn't fallen apart. She's going to be bedridden anyway, and her memory problems and assorted other mental-clarity issues are going to probably make it more possible to carry off the deception than one would think.

Denis gets dragooned into helping put the bedroom back together in a sped-up sequence set to a synthesizer version of The William Tell Overture; it looks like Kubrick references follow that character around like a faithful dog. Also, good on him for helping move a bunch of furniture up to the eighth floor of an apartment block when the elevator's busted. As the move-in date approaches, Alex also goes to charity shops to rebuild the East German wardrobe that he and Ariane discarded once Western products were available (though Alex himself, as a quietly rebellious guy, had a Levi jean jacket even when he was in East Berlin rather than just Berlin). He talks to the new doctor at the hospital--the old one having taken off for Dusseldorf as soon as was practical--and is kind of a snot to him about responsibility and duty to the nation. Which means the guy probably enjoys it a little more than usual when he demonstrates the proper CPR-at-home method to Alex by thumping him on the chest with vigor and abandon.

The big day arrives and Alex seems to be pretty out of his depth instantaneously; even the radio news bulletins in the ambulance are talking about things like switching East German currency to Deutsche marks. But after a couple minor hitches (like trying to make sure his mom doesn't see a neighbor wearing bright capitalist clothing) he gets her installed in the bedroom and safe from the outside world. Now his real task begins. For as long as her life lasts, Alex is going to make sure that his mother doesn't realize the sweeping changes that have gone through every aspect of German life and culture. It means dressing like a real goofball (I assume the clothing is authentically Communist), and also making sure that the radio is busted but the tape deck works; after all, he can control what cassettes make it into the apartment. It's an inversion of the usual family dynamic--Alex, the son, taking care of his mother. But he's going to protect her from finding out the truth, no matter what it takes.

The problems start immediately--from the small (the East German pickles his mom wants as a snack are no longer available now that competing Western stores have opened in his Berlin neighborhood) to the huge (his mother cannot remember where she stashed her bank book, and there's less than two weeks remaining to swap East German currency for the unified German marks). Alex turns out to be rather resourceful when he has to be. I don't think I would have had the patience to repackage all the various foods into old bottles, cans and jars even if I'd thought of the deception. But Alex is really applying himself to the project. The next difficulty pops up when his mother says she feels guilty for the round-the-clock care and asks Alex to set a television up in her bedroom so she has something to watch. The siblings also try to get power of attorney over Frau Kerner's bank account--in actuality so they can swap the East German money for the new currency, but in order to sell the story they claim their state-manufactured Trabant is ready for pickup after only three years on a waiting list. Alex's mom doesn't sign the paper and does tell Alex and Ariane a little secret--she didn't keep her money in a bank. But she can't quite remember where it's stashed in the flat and neither sibling is willing to push the issue too far out of concern for her health.

The geopolitical realities being what they are, a great many former East Germans are abandoning ship and moving elsewhere; this means that Lara and Alex can occupy an apartment abandoned by someone apparently more influential and powerful than the Kerner family--the place, which appears to be a swinging bachelor pad, is larger than the flat shared by Alex, Ariane and their mother. Lara is thrilled to find the phone still works there; Alex can't believe his luck when he sees a bunch of Communist-era packaged foods in the cupboards. The apartment even has a balcony; none of the windows in the gigantic tower block where the Kerners live have balconies. The apartment scenes also have a great sight gag where Alex helps Lara with her homework, which means that he gets stuck in the bathtub with a plaster cast on three limbs. This is almost certainly not what he expected to have happen when she made that request.

Alex decides to pick Denis' brains about what to do in order to prevent news of the world leaking into his mother's presence when she's watching TV; Denis says just showing the old programs again would probably work, since the Communist countries never really changed anything up and never had up-to-date equipment when making the shows. It seems to me that Denis is a relative rarity in the West, in that he was familiar with the East German programs. Maybe he liked them for the camp value, or just liked seeing what the Soviet bloc was doing. I never really thought of it before, but it's likely that the West Berlin channels could be watched in the East and vice versa. The two halves of the city were too close together for it to be any other way. Rigging up the television to show programming that his mom will be able to safely watch is one thing; the other is that her birthday is coming up and the neighbors will be invited, just like every year. And all of them have to be briefed about what conversational topics must be avoided (which is basically everything happening in the country and the world). 

Alex finds capitalism to be quite useful in continuing the deception, bribing a pair of kids 20 marks to sing old East German youth organization songs as part of the celebration. This sequence also puts a human face on the old guard. People who were Alex's age or younger when East Germany became a political entity are now told that everything is different now (true) and better (possibly not). The East German constitution promised a job for every worker, and in the brave new world that isn't true. Not only are the older teachers and principals out of a job, but during one of their gripe sessions they mention the troubles their kids are having looking for steady work in the unified Germany. In the scene where Alex talks to the principal at the school where his mother taught, he displays a steel and resolve almost completely absent from his personality at any other time--it's now safe to criticize someone more powerful than you in East Berlin, and he makes the most of the opportunity.

The birthday party goes off rather well (Rainer the Burger King manager commits to a Method performance, passing himself off as a buyer for a chain of restaurants that existed in the Communist days but no longer does--he also wears goofy-looking plaid-accented Western wear that I'm guessing is the height of fashion for his status and rank and has a remarkably goofy haircut. He even takes detailed notes on his faked autobiography in case any questions come up. And the old principal of the school where Alex's mom taught stays sober enough to not embarrass himself at the shindig--he's one of the characters that takes to the new world rather badly, having unexpectedly found himself consigned to the ash heap of history--which had been the fate predicted for capitalism, not the Marxist-Leninist system he'd lived under since he was a child. And he gets a chance to tell Frau Kerner how much she should have been appreciated by the system when she worked there. Even there Alex is on a tightrope without a net, hoping that the gaps in reality don't become too noticeable for his mom (and the kids who learned their properly Socialist songs do a fine job, and get paid). It all seems to have gone off without a hitch until the gigantic red banner is unfurled on a building that Alex's mother can see from her bed, and instead of a gigantic DDR slogan it's the logo for Coca-Cola, the single most imperialist and class-enemy carbonated beverage.

Before I go any farther, I'd like to praise the movie here, because it's as good a spot as any, for treating all of its characters sympathetically and for all of them being nice people underneath it all. Even the one-note characters like Herr Ganske, grumbling about how dire things are in the new world when he sees Alex looking for old produce jars in a trash bin, have moments where their concerns are taken seriously by the film and the filmmakers. It cannot be easy to shift gears after four decades of life in one system and try to do things completely differently over the course of a single year. But everyone pitches in to keep the deception going and to help Alex protect his mother. Rainer even buys a Trabant rather than a BMW to keep the charade going, and that's a sacrifice worthy of legend. As the article in that link will tell you, "Trabant" means "satellite" in German, so even though it's one of the worst car models ever built I have a certain affection for them.

Even with the affection the film has for its characters and respect for the difficult situation they're in, I don't think it's ever guilty of sugarcoating the regime in East Germany. The buildings are all crumbling and dingy (and in the inevitable return to the hospital, the capitalist system has brighter lights, better equipment and obvious significant improvements in everything visible to the audience). The scenes of people throwing Stasi records out the windows of the headquarters and of the Berlin Wall coming down are presented as unquestionably good, not as ambiguous events. I'm guessing that's one of the other reasons that it was such a smash hit in Germany--it understands what both sides were going through during the year of reunification and sympathizes with both the East and the West. Like Sigmund Jahn in space, or the successful all-German soccer team in the World Cup, it's a movie about Germans--not about East Germans and West Germans.

Back to the narrative--Denis has gone through the national archives of the former East Germany and taped dozens of hours of programming, setting up a system where Alex can have a series of normal "broadcast days" going whenever the TV is on and at least at the beginning of the scheme, his mother doesn't really notice the difference (a commercial about setting up satellite dishes in East Berlin is explained away as "interference", which might well be something that happened a lot on German television). And to start explaining things like that ten-story Coca-Cola logo outside the bedroom window, Denis becomes even more invaluable to the scheme. Frau Kerner has never met him and has no idea what he looks like, so with a bad haircut, a stick-on moustache and a powder-blue suit jacket he looks exactly like anyone else on the news and he can create "special news bulletins" that get dropped into the existing programs with increasing frequency as Alex's scheme turns out to be increasingly unsustainable (and, to Lara, creepy). To hear Denis and Alex explain it, there was a patent-law case proving that Coca-Cola was stolen from an East German chemist and now the drink is officially Communist instead of American.

After the Coca-Cola news break, Alex's mother remembers where she hid her life savings--it's in a piece of furniture that was taken out of the apartment to be hauled away; thankfully, the capitalist garbagemen haven't gotten there yet and Alex gets to rifle through all the abandoned furniture looking for the money. Naturally, Herr Ganske shows up just in time to grump that they've been driven to a new low by the switch to the new system, and wonder what use there was to working for forty years to build a Socialist paradise. Alex misses the deadline as it is, and the bank teller informs him that they would have had to make special arrangements to exchange paper currency instead of bank book records at any rate. Understandably, Alex loses his temper and gets thrown out of the bank. That night he scatters the worthless banknotes off a roof and, at Lara's insistence, engages in some primal scream therapy. Just as he lets out a bellow, fireworks fill the sky. The reunified German soccer team won the World Cup (having "exceeded their production target", according to Alex). His mom even feels better every day.

Another piece of the constructed reality falls apart soon after, but from a direction Alex wasn't expecting. His sister, working at the drive-through, took an order from their long-vanished father. She recognized his voice even through the crappy speaker, and handed over three cheeseburgers and two orders of fries with mayo (Germans apparently preferring that condiment to ketchup). Whatever might have been in her mind about meeting her father again after all that time, I'm positive Ariane didn't expect to just thank him for choosing one particular franchise restaurant for his hamburger needs. Far worse than that--her dad handed the meal off to a pair of young kids in the back seat. Germany might be together again but it sure looks like Herr Kerner won't be looking for the wife and kids he left behind when he fled to the West. Ariane doesn't mention the kids to Alex so he assumes his dad is a fat dude constantly eating terrible food (and the set design for the "capitalist pig class enemy" house is a great little cutaway gag).

When Paula, Christiane's granddaughter, takes her first few tentative steps, Alex's mom decides she should try and get out of the bed and walk around a little bit herself. When she leaves the bedroom, she's also leaving the tiny little scrap of East Germany that Alex constructed around her to keep her safe. Walking outside the apartment tower for the first time in weeks, Seconds after she's outside the building she encounters someone moving in from Wuppertal, in the West, and literally everywhere she looks there's something else new and confusing that makes no sense in the context of a world where there's still an East Berlin and she's still an East German. It's the helicopter hauling away a statue of Lenin (with his hand reaching out to Frau Kerner) that makes the biggest impression, and I'm positive that's a reference to a film I haven't seen yet--like Alex, my education is incomplete when it comes to art film. Ask me one about kaiju eiga films instead, and I'm probably your guy.

At any rate, Alex and Ariane's mom certainly knows that something is up now. One quick studio mockup later and Denis is acting as a newscaster explaining that East Germany is allowing refugees in from the West in the wake of economic collapse; I didn't notice the first time I watched the movie that Denis is wearing a suit coat and no trousers at the news desk. The material that gets repurposed as Westerners seeking political asylum in the Communist world is almost certainly Berlin Wall breach news footage; maybe they just pointed the cameras in the opposite direction? Alex observes that the fantasy East Germany he's creating to keep his mother safe is the country he always wanted to live in. Again, the evenhandedness of the film knocks me out. It's not exactly that the film is refusing to take sides; instead, it's more that the filmmakers are acknowledging that there are two different sides to be viewed. They aren't ten thousand percent for capitalism and Western politics any more than they could be said to be promoting Communism.

When Alex's mother sees the traffic streaming into East Berlin, she knows that she's got to do something to help all those refugees. It's the least a devoted Party member could do for the asylum seekers. There's no room to take in anyone at the flat, but they do have a weekend getaway cabin that could be fixed up and made available. While talking about this situation ("You'll have to decorate the whole city now"), Ariane and Rainer drop the news that they're going to have a child together. One that is both East and West German, and symbolic of the new accords between the two former nations. Also, it's worth noting that the Communist hospital didn't have an ultrasound viewer; the technological advances brought to the Eastern half of the country aren't limited to cars and soft drinks.

At the cabin in the woods, the Kerners, Lara and Rainer don't run afoul of a merman or dragonbat, but there's still problems. With significant nudging from Lara, Alex is about to confess his entire scheme to his mother, since she seems to be strong enough to withstand the emotional shock. Just before he can explain everything, his mother makes her own True Confession. Her husband fled to the West, but not to be with another woman. He wasn't a member of the Communist Party and was facing dismal personal and professional consequences every day. When he had the chance to flee to the west he took it, but Christiane was supposed to take the children and join him shortly after. Her nerve faltered, because if she failed in getting her kids out of the country they would have been taken away from her. She was more willing to live as the wife of a defector in the East than lose her kids and run to the West.

In that moment, Alex truly understands what he's done to his mother through his deception, but he's stung much too badly to react; while he's still numb his mother has a cardiac event and gets rushed back to the hospital. While Alex accompanies his mother to the hospital, Ariane tears the kitchen cupboard apart until she uncovers a decade's worth of mail sent to the family and hidden from her and her brother. Thanks to the return addresses on the mail, she knows where to find the long-absent Robert Kerner and sends Alex out to do just that. One of the last things Christiane said before her second heart attack was that she wanted to see her former husband one more time.

Outside the hospital, Alex gets one more ghost from his past--a cabdriver that's the spitting image of Sigmund Jähn, the first German into space. The cabdriver says he's not actually Jähn, but the movie is rather ambiguous on whether or not he's lying. He takes Alex out of East Germany and into Wannsee, where Robert Kerner has lived since his departure from East Berlin. Alex turns out to be rather underdressed for the cocktail party that's going on at the Kerner residence, and eventually spots his dad playing the happy host before stumbling on his half brother and sister watching a stop-motion children's show called Sandman that he remembers fondly. He calls the character a cosmonaut instead of an astronaut, and when the kids ask where he's from he simply says it's another country. He could mean the past just as much as he means East Germany. His father gets called away to give a speech to the partygoers, leading to the stingingly ironic "Robert, you sure kept us waiting" called out to him as he leaves his son. When he returns to the kids' TV room there's a fantastic bit of physical staging as he sits down next to Alex; the father and son haven't seen each other forever but they've got identical posture.

While Alex is off on his mission, Lara explains to his mother what's actually gone on in Germany for the last year or so; Alex has brought his dad back to the hospital (telling him to think of a good reason for coming back to "East Germany" after all this time). While he's cooling his heels in the hallway with a bouquet of flowers, Ariane shows up to see her mom. He suspects he's having another family reunion; she knows. And she walks away without another word, giving her dad a taste of just how that feels. Alex--and the audience--don't find out what Christiane and Robert talk about in the hospital room, but Alex has decided that his charade has gone on too far, and is utterly unsustainable at this point. It's time to wrap it up.

But he's going to do it on his own terms, and by reuniting East and West Germany himself. To help him in this task:  Denis, a law library with an impressive backdrop of books, a video camera, and a cabdriver in a second-hand dress uniform. With the polite tolerance of everyone at the library (who watch in baffled acceptance), "Sigmund Jähn" gives an important speech and Denis edits all the real-world footage he needs into the faux news feed. When he shows the news to his mother (five days early; she's in very bad shape and probably won't survive until the genuine reunification day), he has no idea that she knows it's all a well-meaning hoax meant to preserve her life in a strange new world. And, for the first time, she's the one lying to Alex about it to save his feelings. She lives three days longer than East Germany, and her son believes she never found out the truth.

A rooftop ceremony with a model rocket and Christiane's ashes is the last scene in the film; the people, East and West, who knew here are there to mark her passing with an aerial scattering of her ashes. Both halves of Germany forbade that, incidentally, but Alex was willing to change the world and reverse the course of history to protect his mom. Funeral laws didn't stand a chance.

I really can't praise this one enough. I'm going to have to watch The Room or something soon or I'll have nothing but masterpieces on this blog. It's a bittersweet comedy about truth, history, and reconciliation that affects me deeply even though I've got only the most tenuous connection to the time and place where the story happens. Daniel Brühl is way too young in the film to be as good as he is, with everyone else supporting his efforts magnificently. I keep forgetting how much bitterness is in with the sweet after I watch it, and every emotional beat hits like a sledgehammer. If you haven't seen this one, and you love movies, you owe it to yourself to check it out.


This review is part of the "Berlin Thanksgiving" event with 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall and corresponding end of the Cold War 25 years ago, in November of 1989.


  1. The Flying Lenin scene comes from the first sequence of 'La Dolce Vita.'

  2. Yeah, I figured it'd be from something I hadn't seen. The only Italian movies that come to mind for me are giallo flicks, zombie movies, cannibal movies and Road Warrior ripoffs.

  3. Since this is my first spam, I'm going to keep it up as a historical curiosity. Finally, after about two years, the Checkpoint has enough readership that someone thinks it's worth their time to do this.