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Go East!

The German Democratic Republic is alive and well, and better than it ever really was, in "Good bye, Lenin!"

9:50 AM, Feb 27, 2004 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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THESE DAYS IT IS HARD TO TELL that Berlin was a divided city. There's hardly a trace of the Wall left, save for a block strip. On Potsdamer Platz, once known as a no-man's-land with concrete barriers and barbed wire, there's a Starbucks, McDonald's, and an Eddie Bauer. In the heart of the platz is the Sony multiplex theater. On my trip to Berlin last December, "Finding Nemo" had just premiered there, complete with a red carpet and an after-party featuring singer Robbie Williams. And one of the more popular films shown there last year was the faux-tribute to the GDR, "Good bye, Lenin!"

Winner for best European film at the Berlin Film Festival (but completely overlooked by the Oscars), "Good bye, Lenin!" tells the story of young Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl), who, as a child living in 1978 East Berlin, remembers watching on television the first German sent into space, aboard Soyuz 31. During this patriotic moment, his mother is being questioned by the Stasi (East German secret police), who want to know why her husband has taken so many trips to West Germany. Alex's voiceover explains that his father was most likely having an affair--and he never returned from the West. His mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass), suffers a complete breakdown and is institutionalized. After a yearlong recovery, she devotes all of her time to her country, devouring the propaganda, dreaming of a workers' paradise, and, as Alex describes it, transferring her sexual energies to the state.

TEN YEARS LATER, the workers' paradise is more of a dream than ever. Alex works for a television repair shop. His sister Ariane (Maria Simon) is divorced and has a child. Their mother, meanwhile, writes petitions to the state complaining about the poor quality of women's clothing. But even in October of 1989, she remains faithful to the cause. In fact, she is on her way to a gala celebrating the 40th anniversary of the GDR when she catches a glimpse of a brawl between the police and throngs of East Germans demanding freedom of the press. As the officers begin clubbing the protesters, Christiane notices her son being arrested. The sight is too much for her to bear and she collapses from a heart attack. She then lies in a coma for the next eight months--one of the most tumultuous eight-month stretches in German history.

When Christiane awakens from her coma, doctors warn Alex that her condition is still critical. She could suffer another heart attack and die if she experiences "any kind of excitement." Alex is convinced that if she learns the Wall is gone and the West has won, it will be the end of her. At which point he embarks on restoring his mother's room--and her world--back to the way it was before fall of the GDR, complete with dull furnishings and requisite Che Guevara portrait.

The charade goes well until Christiane asks for some "Spreewald pickles," a product of the now-defunct regime. She then poses an even greater challenge when she wants to watch television. For her birthday party Alex hires children to pretend they are still Young Pioneers and has them sing socialist anthems and invites the elderly neighbors who seem more than happy to take part in the illusion. Alex must also bring back the old school principal, a once-powerful political figure turned alcoholic. And from her bed, Christiane stares curiously at a red banner unfurling outside her window--a banner missing a hammer and sickle but bearing the words "Coca-Cola."

Alex's friend Denis, a television technician and aspiring filmmaker, records fake news programs to explain certain oddities outside the bedroom window. Together with his girlfriend Lara and his sister Ariane--who is now dating, horror of horrors, her Burger King manager--Alex rewrites history: East Germans don't want out, he tells his mother, the West Germans want in!

IN AMERICA, we forget how rapidly the events in late 1989 and 1990 followed on one another. Within the eight months of Christiane's coma, the world as she knew it would be gone for good.

The film's enormous appeal can be attributed to Ostalgie--a nostalgia for the East, a yearning for the glory days of the GDR. There are television shows in Germany that celebrate the past and shops which sell East German goods such as Ersatzkaffee (not made from coffee beans but from grains and charred vegetables). And yet "Good bye, Lenin!" does not glorify the past so much as encapsulate it, with director Wolfgang Becker inserting real news footage and music from that era (along with a haunting score by Yann Tiersen), and clothes that are not only out of fashion now but were even out of fashion then. ("Look at the crap we used to wear," Ariane tells her baby.) The state mentality is perfectly captured when Alex informs his mother that their Trabant, an East German jalopy, is ready for purchase. Christiane, all aglow, replies, "After only three years waiting?"