The past is everybody’s favorite vacation destination. The days were longer and the food was better and God knows you weren’t nearly this fat.
Sometimes this universal affinity can get the best of reasonable people, however. A wave of nostalgia swept Germany recently with the release of Good Bye, Lenin! The punchline: It was nostalgia for the cultural talismans of East Germany, which was nobody’s idea of a kitsch factory—nobody but those nutty Germans, apparently. They even used a word for it: Ostalgie (ost = East).
But there are dumber nostalgia trends in this country every year (Exhibit A: Mesh trucker caps, which never actually had a heyday to recapture, but try telling that to Ashton and Justin when they need something springy enough to contain their enormous heads). And as sitcom premises go, the one driving director Wolfgang Becker’s film is a nostalgia piece in itself. In fact, the plot is so gimmicky and contrived that it’s hard to get close to this emotionally manipulative film, despite plenty of solid comedic moments and a heartfelt performance by Daniel Bruhl as a young guy whose love for his mother inspires more wackiness than the average German will ever encounter.
The fun starts in East Germany in 1989, when Alex (Bruhl) gets arrested while participating in an anti-government demonstration. This is a shock to his mother (Katrin Sass), a schoolteacher who became an enthusiastic Communist when her husband left her for the wonders of the West 10 years earlier. In fact, it gives her a heart attack and sends her into a coma, where she stays for eight months.
While she’s out, the sky falls. She has missed the most tumultuous time in decades: Communism falls, the Berlin Wall is a pile of souvenirs and Western culture is spreading through the East like kudzu. Alex is installing satellites for TV, and his sister, Ariane (Maria Simon), is manning the drive-thru window at Burger King. An entire way of life has evaporated, and everybody is adjusting—but a doctor tells the kids that any serious shock to their mother’s system could kill her. So in the grand tradition of Lucille Ball, John Ritter and Kelly Ripa, Alex concocts an impossibly elaborate scheme to avoid a 30-second explanation: He will re-create East Germany in the family’s apartment, removing every reference to the events of the past eight months in order to convince his mother that everything is just fine.
Alex enlists the help of his girlfriend, his sister and her boyfriend, and at first, it’s not much more challenging than putting new food into old containers. But trouble starts, as it usually does in sitcoms, when the mark regains the observational skills of a normal adult. For instance, she sees a Coca-Cola sign outside their window and can’t figure out how it got there. So Alex goes to even greater lengths, recruiting his buddy, Denis, to make fake newscasts that hail East Germany’s triumphant invention of Coke.
Across town, the family’s estranged father (Burghart Klaussner) rolls up to the drive-thru window, setting the stage for several family dramas that feel lifted from Norman Lear’s vault. We also visit a family cottage that hasn’t been touched in 10 years, where more light is shed on Becker’s thoughts about the national divide. He’s a native West German, but his understanding of the East has been praised. In truth, he has nothing terribly profound to say, but he’s very polite and funny about it.
Though the story remains just a bit too hackneyed to truly beguile, Alex’s love for his mother is universal and touching. The film’s love for East Germany is a bit harder to understand, until you accept that nostalgia doesn’t reside in reality. It’s the inflation and colorization of events safely removed from practicality. That’s when everything falls into place, and Good Bye, Lenin! becomes slightly more important than the sitcom it’s straining to become.