GOOD BYE, LENIN! directed by Wolfgang Becker, written by Becker, Hendrik Handloegten, Bernd Lichtenberg and Achim von Borries, produced by Stefan Arndt, with Katrin Sass, Daniel Brühl, Maria Simon and Florian Lukas. 121 minutes. A Seville Pictures release. Opens Friday (March 19). For venues and times see First-Run Movies, page 76. Rating: NNNN
When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, East Germans lunged into the oncoming wave of western consumer goods. Not 15 years later, "ostalgia" set in - nostalgia for the old Ost Deutschland. Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye, Lenin! taps into that feeling and twists it. The story of a son who creates a bubble of East Berlin for his ailing mother when the Wall falls, it's both a social comedy about hardships under communism and a family drama about honouring the past. It's also Germany's highest-grossing movie. Even former East Germans like it, maybe because it brings back some of what's since been paved over and Starbucksed.
"They lost a different tempo of life," Becker said at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival. "Life was slower, closer to the biological clock of human beings. I think the English term is 'rat race'? Well, they didn't have this kind of rat race. Although you could be betrayed by your best friend, everybody will tell you that friendship and human relationships were stronger then.
"Even in a dictatorship," he adds in what ought to be the tag line for a movie, "you have your first kiss. You fall in love, you get married and have kids. Why should you forget it only because you had the bad luck to live on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain?"
Becker is a big bear of a man with a ruddy face out of a Bruegel painting. He looks like the town butcher, which makes his insights into character all the more arresting.
The mother in Good Bye, Lenin!, he says, is somebody who truly believes in the positive part of the socialist idea.
"She's not a hard-liner, she's not in the party. She's what we call a reformer, a Gorbachev fan. For her, capitalism is not the solution. The solution is we have to help ourselves. She's a very emotional person, a very truthful person. She's an idealist - and that's dangerous. Idealists are dangerous for any kind of society. Especially socialist idealists - they have a dream, and they are not pragmatic. The people in the party, the apparatchiks, were pragmatic."
Becker grew up in the West and admits he knew very little of life in East Germany at the time. For the film he had to rely on regular research meetings.
"The scriptwriter and I met with people in a pub and they told us their stories," he says. "It came out very early that there was no prototypical way of life then. People had very different feelings. Some really hated it and wanted to get away but couldn't, and others found arrangements with the system.
"But people had their group of friends or their dacha (weekend cabin). At the fence of the dacha the politics ended. That was a kind of gentleman's agreement between the government and the people. Behind this fence it was private. The GDR supported this kind of privacy if it was a family gathering."
It's that kind of subtlety that gives Good Bye, Lenin! its heart. But for Western audiences, the easiest access point might be brand nostalgia. Becker gets great mileage from showing how ordinary, shoddy East German goods went from despised to beloved in a matter of weeks. Communist coffee and pickles and jam all disappeared from East Berlin shelves as soon as the Wall fell.
But to recreate that era, he recalls, "we needed not obvious things, but things you hardly ever notice in your life. Years later if you see it you might say, 'Oh yeah, we had that in our house,' but at the time you didn't notice. Like the milk bottles of your childhood or the stuff you had in the kitchen.
"Things must smell," he says, definitively. "The smell of this time must come back. With the smell the memories come back, too."