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Commie Mommy

'Good Bye, Lenin!' is a heartfelt comedy about the end of the worker's paradise

By Richard von Busack

HEARING THE NEWS of the Berlin Wall's falling in 1989, this movie fan immediately thought of the last moments in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, in which Claire Bloom's character doesn't quite make it over the wall before the sentries shoot her with rifles. In San Francisco, there's a plaque marking the alley where Miles Archer was shot--the opening salvo in that game of situational ethics that is Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Don't you wish there were more monuments to the deaths of fictional characters?

Good Bye, Lenin! is the obituary the German Democratic Republic deserves--a mocking one. In Wolfgang Becker's comedy drama, the fall of the wall is laid out something like a brilliant screwball comedy. An East Berlin single mother, Christine (Katrin Sass, very good; she displays the lacquered calm of Madeline Kahn), has been abandoned by her husband. Briskly, she becomes a socialist gadfly, hectoring various committees with letters and suggestions. Her son, Alex (Daniel Brühl), the film's narrator, is happy enough. Breezily, and with a touch of Lubitschian élan, Alex claims that the Berlin Wall is a nuisance to pedestrians. He joins a protest march, which is brutally subdued. Seeing her son clubbed sends Christine into a heart attack--and thus into a coma which lasts long enough for the hated wall to come down, and the first throes of reunification to begin.

When she awakes, the doctors warn her children not to overstimulate her weak heart with any shocking news. Thus Alex, his sister, Ariane (Maria Simon), and his girlfriend, a sweet-faced Russian nurse (Chulpan Khamatova, the water nymph from Tuvalu), conspire to conceal the end of East Germany from his beloved, bedridden mother. This requires much skill--the retrieval of discarded frumpy clothes and furniture, the taping of fake news broadcasts, even the recruiting of street urchins to pose as Young Pioneers. There's supposed to be a hot market in East German nostalgia, and Good Bye, Lenin! salutes how a carefully constructed way of life disappeared, almost overnight. This may seem like a light subject, but the film's undertone is audible. It zeroes in on the way we try to re-embrace long-dead parts of ourselves to try to please our mothers and fathers.

Good Bye, Lenin! is dry and funny. There's a particularly bright sight gag of a flock of East Germans, rooted stock still by their first sight of porno. Yet ultimately, the film turns out to be dead serious. Becker likens the failure of the socialist paradise to something akin to a failure of mothering, not a failure of love; apparently Becker wishes that the allure of the altruistic, self-sacrificing life was as powerful as the allure of the consumer goods that rained down on an unprepared East Germany. "We were all valuable people," laments a newly unemployed teacher, taken to booze after the engulfment of East Berlin by the West. Becker does a good job separating the core of idealism from the mess of violence, lies and suppression that made up this dead republic.

Good Bye, Lenin! (R; 121 min.), directed by Wolfgang Becker, written by Becker, Hendrik Handloegten, Bernd Lichtenberg and Achim von Borries, photographed by Martin Kukula and starring Katrin Sass and Daniel Brühl, opens Friday at the Los Gatos Cinema.

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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