Good Bye, Lenin (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Once upon a time, director Cameron Crowe was so impressed with the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos that he remade it into Vanilla Sky. It turned out OK, I guess, but I've never been much enamored of the idea of taking European films out of their own context. I mean, can you imagine a re-make of The Seventh Seal with Tom Cruise as The Knight and Christopher Walken as Death? Well, now that I think about it, it would be kind of cool to re-make The Seventh Seal, just because Max Van Sydow could play Death this time around! There is a certain poetic closure in that.

The change of context wasn't the big problem with Crowe's Vanilla Sky, however. The real problem was that people went to it expecting to see a Cameron Crowe movie and ended up sitting through an M. Night Shyamalan movie. If Vanilla Sky had ever been seen by the Shyamalan audience, they might have liked it. It just wasn't a Cameron Crowe movie.

Alas, if only Crowe had waited to do an English-language re-make! Good-Bye, Lenin would have been the perfect project for him.

1. It is a great movie, with broad audience appeal, that will never be appreciated widely in America because it is in German with English subtitles. In fact, it is trapped in a foreign film version of Catch-22. It is too mainstream for the people who normally like subtitled European films, but the same language barrier will keep mainstream audiences from seeing it. I believe it would be a monster hit in America if it were in English.

2. It is a Cameron Crowe movie waiting to happen. Crowe's best work is all about maintaining one's humanity and decency in a dehumanizing environment: high school cliques, big-time rock, big-time sports, etc. This movie is about maintaining one's humanity under dehumanizing East German Communism, and then again in the crazy, dehumanizing shock-therapy that the East went through in the reunification of Germany.

The premise is very simple. A dedicated, idealistic woman really believes in The Glorious Worker's Paradise. She makes the crazy system work on a small scale, with her volunteer projects, letter writing, and citizen activism on behalf of worthwhile socialist and humanitarian causes. Then she has an accident; goes into a coma. While she lies unconscious, the whole world changes. The wall comes down, Germany reunifies, and Western values obviously triumph completely. When she comes out of her coma, virtually nothing is left of the culture of East Germany. Her doctor sends her home from the hospital, but with a warning to her children that any major shock could be fatal to her. Her loving son determines that the fall of her beloved East Germany would be such a shock, so he resolves to keep the GDR alive for her inside her apartment, and he enlists all of mama's old friends and colleagues to help him preserve the illusion.

His project gets more and more complicated when he begins to realize how much things have changed. His mom wants an old brand of pickles that was produced under socialism. Long gone. The dreary old socialist stores are being replaced by shiny new markets with brands from West Germany, France, the U.K., and the U.S.A. He finds an old discarded jar from the socialist days, and fills it with a new kind of pickles, then resumes his scavenger hunt for those old pickles and the other forgotten treasures of the East. Although only a few months have passed since his mother's accident, it might as well have been decades, so rapidly and completely has East Germany been consigned to the scrap heap of history.

The final complication occurs when his mother looks outside and sees the old buildings festooned with Western-style advertising, especially for that ultimate symbol of capitalism, Coca-Cola. How can the son explain this? Serendipitously, he has a friend who wants to be a filmmaker, and the two friends see this as a perfect opportunity to practice filmmaking and deceive mama at the same time, by making nightly news shows which explain all the sights mama has seen of the reunified Germany - except that explanation always involves some triumph for the East over the corrupt forces of capitalism. (Which arouses no suspicion, since it is pretty much how East Germany spun everything anyway!)

That main plot alone would be enough for a good movie. (The false news broadcasts and their inherent lies are hilarious.)

But on top of that, there is so much layering, such a rich tapestry of lives woven together by the fall of Communism, that the film rises another level, to greatness. The film's writers obviously know the subject matter first-hand, and they bring in all the elements which reflect that time and place perfectly, while the director realizes all of the images necessary and appropriate to the task.

  • Mama's husband is still alive. He was a doctor. He fled to the West and prospered under capitalism. He abandoned his family in the East when the kids were very young. We are led at first to think that he was a monster for doing so, but the explanation is anything but that. He loved his wife, and would have loved to bring her out of East Germany, but she really believed in socialism. He waited and waited for an opportunity, prayed for reunification, then finally gave up and started a new family. Mama never really told the whole story to the children.

  • Most of the people who fled to the West, in fact virtually all of them, were able to escape with only what they could stuff in their pockets as they made a surreptitious border crossing. They left their entire lives behind: photo albums, love letters, books - all of the things we humans consider our most precious personal belongings - not to mention vast stocks of food hoarded when the opportunities arose. As pictured here, the East Berlin of this time period is filled with apartments that still include people's entire lives.

  • The son's boyhood hero, the first East German astronaut, is still alive, now working as a cab driver. The son eventually manages to find a way to bring his faded idol back to glory, if only in a false news report.

As in many great movies, some of the best background material is never discussed at all. It is just there, behind the actors, revealing the character of the transition period, the likes of which we will never see again.

I lived in Eastern Europe in that Gorbachev era just after the wall came down, and was amazed by how rapidly the East assimilated the new ways. I was stunned by how easily people could jump from 1917 to 1990 in a matter of months, and I felt their great sense of sadness in knowing that some of the precious elements of their former lives would be lost instantly and could never again be captured, especially for those who genuinely believed that socialism might have produced a compassionate society if only it could somehow have by-passed the Stalins and Honeckers of the world, who turned their countries into Kafkaesque and/or Orwellian nightmares. I lived for many years with a woman whose retired parents had their lives unraveled by Glasnost. (The transition was especially difficult for pensioners in many parts of the old Soviet bloc, although the Germans dealt fairly well with this problem.)

I could never articulate all the feelings that I had in those days, nor would I know how to communicate those feelings to other people. Fortunately, the people who made this film knew everything I knew, felt everything I felt, and more, and they had the artistic vision and talent to make it come alive in an interesting, touching, and funny movie. It's a movie which captures an era perfectly, in a way that allows the rest of us who were not there to understand all the complexities of the time; yet it is also just a simple movie about a guy's love for his very deserving mother.


Male: full frontal and rear nudity from Alexander Beyer

Female: breasts from two unidentified women.

Chulpan Khamatova shows one breast in a deleted scene on the DVD.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by director Wolfgang Becker (in German with English subtitles)

  • Commentary by Daniel Bruhl, Katrin Sass, and Alexander Beyer (in German with English subtitles)

  • In German with English subtitles

  • 10 deleted scenes with optional director commentary

  • Lenin Learns to Fly visual-effects featurette

  • Mini making-of featurette

  • Uncut "Aktuelle Kamera" broadcasts

I laughed out loud several times during the fake news reports in this film, and I'm not ashamed to say that there were times when my eyes were blurred from emotion, especially when the kid brought the old astronaut out of retirement to give East Germany a proper send-off. Then I watched it all a second time! This is a terrific movie, so rich, so compassionate, so human. And the kid's voice-over narration is absolutely eloquent, pure poetry, but delivered perfectly in character, matter-of-factly, not rhetorically. The film won just about every award that a German film can win in Europe. (Of course, the people in Germany and elsewhere in Europe felt the emotions of this film in a way that most of you cannot, but you'll still like it.) If you have any tolerance at all for subtitled films, this should be #2 on your list, after Amelie.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus three stars. James Berardinelli 3/4, Roger Ebert 3/4.

  • British consensus: three stars. Mail 6/10, Telegraph 10/10, Independent 8/10, Guardian 8/10, Times 6/10, Sun 8/10, Express 10/10, Mirror 8/10, BBC 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • It grossed $4 million in the USA in arthouse distribution (116 screens max). It was a hit in Germany, with about $40 million in box office. It took in another $8 million in France, and another $7 million elsewhere outside the USA.

Awards ...

  • It won virtually every award that a European film can win in Europe. Astoundingly, it was not nominated for best foreign language film by the American academy.

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. I rate it that low only because it is in German, and subtitled films do not have massive crossover appeal. If you don't mind subtitled films, or if you speak German, it is a B+.

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