The scene is East Berlin in 1989. a diehard communist teacher is on her way to celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the East German state when she catches sight of her son in an antigovernment demonstration. She collapses from a heart attack and falls into a coma. When she regains consciousness eight months later, the communist world has been swept away but her doctor warns her son that any stress could trigger another heart attack. So he hatches an elaborate plot to convince her that her beloved German Democratic Republic still exists.
In Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall has rarely been played for laughs. But a new film, Goodbye Lenin!, is packing cinemas throughout the country with its wry look at life in newly liberated East Berlin. The film which has been nominated for six prizes at the Lolas, the German Oscars, awarded in June has been praised by former Ossis for the
accuracy of its depiction of life in the communist East, while West Germans have been captivated by its warmhearted family humor.
It may surprise some that the director, screenwriter and leading actor are all from West Germany. "In the beginning I was not thinking I'm from the West and telling a story from the East," says director Wolfgang Becker. "I'm a man and make films about women. I live in the 21st century and make films about the 19th century. I think that's more complicated." Becker, 48, moved to West Berlin from a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia as a university student in 1974 and was a frequent visitor to the East. "I knew the city, I knew the people there and I knew how it felt," he says.
Much of the film's humor derives from the increasingly desperate attempts by the son, Alex (Daniel Brühl), to convince his mother that life goes on as before. Since he won't tell her about the historic changes in the country, he must scour the city for East German food products, which have been replaced by better Western goods. He is so desperate that he collects old East German packages and refills them with Western products. "That's how far they have reduced us," says a staunch communist neighbor when he sees Alex searching through trash cans looking for empty containers. Becker describes the film as a "sad comedy," in contrast to other films about the East such as the 1999 hit Sonnenallee, a more slapstick look at life under communism. "Comedy always has a serious basis," Becker says. "The people we're all laughing at don't feel like laughing, while we in the audience have to laugh."
Becker says he searched for four months to find an East German actor who could play Alex but failed. He then interviewed Brühl and knew he had the right man. Brühl, from Cologne, spent eight weeks in intensive training to master the East Berlin accent. His gullible mother is played by famed East German actress Katrin Sass. Other East German actors helped revise the script to eliminate expressions and slang not used in the East.
The film, which cost j4 million to make, was initially beset by bad luck. Frequent storms halted filming, a number of actors fell ill, and it proved difficult to remake the East Berlin neighborhood to look like 1989 all the parking meters had to be removed, for example. The key moment in the film, when the mother sees a Soviet helicopter carrying away a huge bust of Lenin, took weeks to shoot because of weather problems and a malfunctioning Russian chopper. Goodbye Lenin! won the Blue Angel, the award for the best European film, at the 53rd Berlin Film Festival in February. And critics are wowed. "It is grippingly funny, fantastically grotesque and endlessly moving," said the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. How will it play outside Deutschland? The film has been sold to 29 different markets, including Italy, where it opens in May, and France and Britain, where it debuts in July. Becker says he is confident that foreign audiences will get the film's subtle humor. "You don't have to know the original to figure out the whole thing is funny," he said. "It's not a film about reunification. It's a film about the relationship between a mother and son." It almost makes you sad to see Lenin go.