Time warp: Keeping mama in the dark
If ever a movie was meant to be seen on Mother's Day, it's Good Bye Lenin! Germany's submission for this year's Academy Awards. (It didn't get an Oscar nomination, but it was nominated for a Golden Globe). Okay, it reached us a little late, but maybe the ol' gal deserves an extra treat.
Although the films could hardly be more different, the plot is similar to that of 50 First Dates (DVD release June 15) in the way family and friends maintain a deception for the sake of a damaged loved one.
As the comedy in Good Bye Lenin! is more subtle, much of it likely to go over the heads of Americans with limited knowledge of East Germany's transition from socialism to capitalism.
The emphasis here is on sentiment, but it's honest sentiment; if the film wrings tears from you, it earns them.
We first meet the Kerners in 1978 when Herr Kerner defects to the West, leaving his wife, Christiane (Katrin Sass, the German equivalent of Patricia Clarkson), and two children behind. Christiane has a breakdown but snaps back after two months and pours her energy into helping the common people on behalf of the party.
On October 7, 1989, her son, Alex (Daniel Brühl), is in his late teens, his sister, Ariane (Maria Simon), a little older and a single mother. It's the 40th (and final) birthday of the German Democratic Republic.
Christiane happens to see Alex being arrested in a political demonstration and has a heart attack. She spends eight months in a coma, and when she comes out of it, her doctor warns that the slightest shock could kill her: "You must protect her from any kind of excitement."
Under the circumstances, Alex deems it best to keep certain news from his mother. It's all right for her to meet his new girlfriend, Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), who has been one of her nurses, and Ariane's new boyfriend, Rainer (Alexander Beyer); but she may not be able to handle the news that the Berlin Wall has fallen and the East Germany she knew and loved no longer exists. The stores are full of Western products, the streets are full of Western cars, and the people are full of Western ideas.
Alex brings Christiane home, having restored her room to its former drabness, and controls her access to information with an elaborate charade. Situations flare up that require him to be brilliantly creative to avoid arousing her suspicion. He runs the household as if it were a Risky Business.
As weeks go by, everyone else loses enthusiasm for the plan, but Alex remains steadfast about sheltering his mother from the truth. Greater love hath no son.
For East Germans, Good Bye Lenin! is a nostalgic, somewhat satirical look back at how their country changed overnight. For the rest of us, it's an eye-opener on that subject. For everyone, it's a sweetly sentimental– but too funny to be syrupy– story of the extremes family members will go to for each other.