Movie Review
Good Bye, Lenin!
2003
Director: Wolfgang Becker
Cast: Daniel Bruhl, Kathrin Sass
C+


fifteen years after the fact, few would deny that the fall of communism was a good thing. Yes, of course, we ought to feel grateful for all of those great rewards like democracy and free markets, Putin t-shirts and t.A.T.u. videos.

And yet, unfortunately for cinema, the cold war comedy did not benefit from the new world order. For some reason, when the Evil Empire ceased to be a threat in our lives, it also ceased to be a source of laughter in our movie theaters. The new German film Good Bye, Lenin! tries to navigate this tricky reality, but despite a good effort, fails.

A well-made and interesting work, Lenin! is the creation of director Wolfgang Becker. It tells the story of Alex Kerner (Daniel Bruhl), a young boy raised with his sister by a single mother in communist East Berlin. In 1989, the mother suffers a heart attack and falls into a deep coma. When she wakes up almost a year later, the Wall has fallen and capitalism, for better and for worse, has taken hold. But Mom is in a fragile state and any shock could kill her. So Alex decides to create a little bubble in their small apartment in which nothing has changed and where the new era of Ikea, satellite television, and Coca-Cola cannot penetrate.

That’s the setup. More disappointing is that it’s also the punchline. A few more complications arise (a new love, a new baby, a dark family secret), but for the most part, Lenin! runs the risk of becoming a one-joke movie. The script is witty enough to keep us chuckling, but it’s a long movie and by the end we seem to have already tread the same ground a few too many times.

A rational evaluation reveals that all of the pieces are there: fine acting, sharp camerawork, a clever, original story, a warm feel, and a colorful look. But ultimately they don’t come together when they ought to. The movie itself, its tone, is just simply confused; its intentions jumbled.

Most of the time Lenin! seems to be aiming for "touching comedy." Silly, dedicated son, look how you struggle to maintain the ruse! But too often it shifts gears, grasping awkwardly for, say, "elaborate caper," "charming romance," or "frank historical drama." And a delicate, but generic and distracting piano score doesn’t clear things up. The conclusion lumbers across the finish line, dull and insincere.

Sadly, the movie feels most like those innocuous British comedies from a few years back: Waking Ned Devine, The Full Monty, Amazing Grace. Like Good Bye, Lenin!, those movies derive their momentum from artfully constructed situations. They are winsome and entertaining, but not especially funny.

To be sure, the movie does maintain a smart irreverence about its own difficult task of depicting a significant cultural tipping point within the narrative. The glimpses of decimated grocery markets, a flourishing arts scene, and East-West romance are thoughtful and striking.

There is also a lot of “nudge, nudge” going on. We get a mammoth Lenin statue transported by helicopter, La Dolce Vita-style, across the Berlin skyline (lately, new films have not been especially kind to the two great fathers of the Russian revolution. In last year’s Frida Trotsky received a sharp ice pick to the head. And worse still, his partner has now been reduced to a snarky, visual pun). Meanwhile, evoking Dr. Zhivago—that great movie featuring Omar Sharif’s frozen moustache and the rise of Bolshevism—Alex finds love in Russian nurse Lara as the movement collapses around them. The ambitious Becker sure knew what he was getting into.

Ultimately, you can see Good Bye, Lenin! at its most ambitious when it is in comedic mode. Too bad, because that is also when it rings least sincere. Perhaps it is just a case of born-too-late. For nearly fifty years, from John Foster Dulles and Dr. Strangelove to Spies Like Usand Ronald Reagan, the threat of mutually assured destruction was a comic gold mine. Here, communism and the West’s need to confront it looks like just another quaint artifact from days of yore—more of a backdrop than a historical reality.


By: Rob Lott
Published on: 2004-04-09
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