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Film / Good Bye, Lenin!

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"The GDR survives — on 79 square meters!"

Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the young East German Alexander Kerner's dedicated Communist mother, Christiane, sees her son in an anti-government demonstration and falls into a coma due to a heart attack. When she awakens eight months later, the doctors tell Alexander that his mother cannot abide a new shock. Alexander therefore orchestrates an elaborate ruse, complete with fake television programs, to keep his bed-ridden mother from finding out that the GDR is gone.

Good Bye, Lenin! is a German bittersweet comedy from 2003, directed by Wolfgang Becker and starring Daniel Brühl. Has a lot of subtle humor, playing on the feeling of shell-shock many East Germans felt upon being catapulted into the capitalist world and the almost overnight disappearance of their country. Many of the visual clues might be easy to miss for people not familiar with the common cliches about the GDR. The film also was Brühl's Star-Making Role.


This film provides examples of:

  • Age Cut: Alex is a student launching a model rocket in school. The camera pans up as the rocket launches and pans down to find Alex 10 years older.
  • The Alcoholic: Klapprath, the former principal of the school where Christiane taught, is shown as having been driven to drink. Presumably he didn't take the changes (and enforced retirement) too well.
  • The Alleged Car: The family's acquisition of a Trabant after "just" 3 years' wait- a sky-blue wagon, no less- is a plot point.
  • Alternate History: In-Universe. Alexander, along with his friends and family, sets up an elaborate alternate history where East Germany ends up dominant over West Germany to hide the truth from his mother.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The cab driver, if he really is supposed to be Sigmund Jähn. In real life, Jähn managed to work as a freelance consultant for the German Aerospace Center (DLR) following reunification in 1990, prior to which he was in the East German army where he had risen to the rank of Major General. In short, it's very unlikely he'd be that down on his luck.
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    • People in most of the GDR's territory could actually watch Western television with no consequences, so it's unlikely that East Berliners would be that uninformed about various vices of capitalist society. Regions at the extreme northeast and southeast of the GDR—where Western broadcasts were not accessible due to their remoteness from the West—were referred to as the Valley of the Clueless within the GDR itself. Surprisingly, there was more recorded dissatisfaction with the regime in these areas, perhaps because their residents could dismiss all the negative information about the West fed to them by the government as propaganda.
  • Burger Fool: With her economics degree rendered useless by the fall of Communism and having to raise a daughter, Ariane is forced to take a job at Burger King in order to make ends meet.
  • Central Theme: The world around you can change faster than you wish, but you have to try and make the most of it.
  • Commie Land: Or rather, the transition from this.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Alex, particularly in the narration. Ariane and Rainer occasionally throw it back at him.
  • A Degree in Useless: Ariane's studying of "economic theory" (presumably of a Marxist-Leninist sort) is something she clearly saw as useless in a now-capitalist environment- so she quits whilst she's ahead and gets a job at the very capitalist Burger King.
  • Disappeared Dad: Subverted. At the beginning of the film it is explained that Alex's father abandoned his family when he was a child and fled to West Germany with his western mistress. However, this turns out as a lie that his mother told him. His father wanted to flee with his family and it was Alex's mother who decided to stay at the last moment.
  • The Driver: The cab driver who may or may not have been Sigmund Jähn.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: We first see Alex as a young man with a bottle of beer in his hand.
  • Dumpster Dive: Alex discovers that most of the old product brands have been replaced by imports from the west so he searches dumpsters for jars with the old labels. He cleans the jars and puts the food into them so his mother never knows that they are actually eating food imported from the capitalist world. The one exception being pickles from Holland, as Alex could not find the label for Spreewald gherkins.
  • End of an Age: As indicated by the title, the end of communism in Europe.
  • Excited Show Title!: Good Bye, Lenin! is a title that officially includes an exclamation mark.
  • "Fawlty Towers" Plot: "Don't mention the Wall!"
  • Filth: When the Wall comes down, Alex and several other East Germans walk over to West Berlin to see for themselves what the West is like. He's astounded to see a store where graphic porn films are being sold.
  • Finger-Twitching Revival: Mom awakes from her coma.
  • Foreign Language Title:
    • Uses the English "Goodbye" instead of the German "Auf Wiedersehen".
    • This gets a gag in one scene, which shows a (real) headline from the fall of the Wall saying, Mach's gut, Deutschland! ("Goodbye, Germany!")
  • Funny Background Event: While attending a punk party in an abandoned building, Alex and Lana find a quiet room that has been thrashed and painted entirely in black-and-white to sit down to have a chat. Over the course of the whole scene, neither of them take notice of the man who is painted like the room and is just sitting on a couch behind them with a Thousand-Yard Stare.
  • The Future Is Shocking: A variation occurs (no actual time travel, but East Germany was in a sort of stasis) — after the Berlin Wall falls, the protagonist goes to see West Germany and instantly encounters a TV with porn on. Given how shocking the experience is for him, he reasons that it will be even worse for his mother, leading him to construct his elaborate ruse.
  • German Humor: Lots of it in the narration, not all picked up by the subtitles.
  • Hope Spot: Alex gives a triumphant howl when he finds the family's life savings in their old drawers. It then cuts to them learning that they missed the exchange deadline.
  • Hospital Hottie: Lara, the nurse with whom Alex begins a relationship.
  • I Never Got Any Letters: The mother reveals that she has been lying to Alex about his father. He didn't go to West Germany with a woman and he did write letters. Ariane later finds all of the old letters from her father and cries as she reads them.
  • Imagine Spot: After Ariane says that she saw their father, Alex imagines him as a morbidly obese man living in a mansion with a pool.
  • In the Original Klingon: One of the fake newscasts claims that proof has been discovered to demonstrate that Coca-Cola was invented in East Germany. Even Christiane isn't completely fooled as she knew it existed before the war.
  • It's All Junk: Played with. The old, East German furniture that they threw out turns out to be the hiding place of their life savings. Later, the money is worthless because the family missed the cut-off to exchange them for West German Marks.
  • Let Them Die Happy: Sort of (but not exactly in the way Alexander intends).
  • Locked Out of the Loop:
    • The entire plot is based on locking Alex' mother out of the loop. Later, it's Alex that has to be locked out of the loop, and slightly before that we discover that Alex and his sister were locked out of the loop for over a decade by their mother.
    • Then there also is the over-arching theme of the GDR's entire population having been locked out of the loop, and now having understandable trouble adjusting to it.
  • Magnum Opus: Denis describes his final news segment as "his best work yet," and says it's a shame that only Christiane will see it.
  • Maintain the Lie: What begins as a simple attempt to prevent Christiane from knowing that the Wall fell "takes on a life of its own" and has to be developed into an elaborate ruse, even to the point of making use of Alex's friend and colleague Denis' passion for film-making to create fake news reports (some of which are clearly ridiculous, but imitate the Real Life propaganda) to explain away reality.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: Rainer, after Alex says that they need to take down the new blinds while he was in a tanning bed.
  • Match Cut: Discussed by Alex's aspiring filmmaker friend Denis.
  • Mating Dance: Alex walks in on Ariane and Rainer doing this during his mother's coma period, narrating it as "Rainer's enthusuiasm for the ways and tradition of the Orient" (namely, Ariane in a belly dancer outfit, whilst he's in his underwear), before apologising and leaving them to it.
  • National Anthem: The East German anthem "Risen from Ashes" plays while Alex shows his final fake news video to his mother.
  • No Antagonist: Since the conflict centers around the upheaval caused by German reunification and the fall of communism. The closest thing to villains are the East German cops that beat Alex up at the protest in the beginning.
  • Notice This: After the Wall comes down, Ariane gets rid of the old furniture in the apartment by marking it with red stickers, one of which the camera has a closeup on as she puts it on a set of drawers. It turns out to be the location of their life savings.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Alex when his mother asks for some Spreewaldgurken, her favorite pickles, as practically all East German brands have been replaced by Western foodstuffs.
    • Any time Alex notices a sign of West Germany within proximity of his mother's bedroom. The first is when their neighbor is watching ARD's Tagesschau, causing Christiane to wonder why he is watching West German television. And then there's the Coca-Cola banner.
    • He gets another when he realizes his mother has gotten out of bed and left the apartment.
  • Outdated Outfit: Played with. To keep the ruse going, it is required for any guests to take off their Capitalist Germany clothes and replace them with Communist Germany Outdated Outfits.
    Ariane: (shows off a blouse to her daughter Paula) Look at all this crap we used to wear.
  • Pants-Free: While filming a fake news segment, Denis is not wearing any pants under the "news desk."
  • Popcultural Osmosis Failure: Denis shows Alex the wedding video he has edited in the style of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Alex does not get the reference - having never seen the original film. Later, when the Kerners, Lara, and Rainer are driving through the countryside, they start singing a song in Russian which they all know, but which Rainer (a westerner) doesn't.
  • Police Brutality: Early in the film we see a protest (in which Alex is participating and first meets Lara) being brutally suppressed by police, despite the protestors' pleas for "Keine Gewalt!" ("No violence!") which (after seeing her son being arrested) triggers Christiane's heart attack.
  • Present-Day Past:
    • Some of the western brand products are in contemporary (with respect to the making of the film) rather than circa-1990 packaging.
    • Subverted by the Matrix-esque T-shirt Denis wears in one scene, which is explained in deleted footage as an idea in the making as well as giving nods to the simulated reality Alex's mother is kept in.
    • At one point, Denis says "Houston, we have a problem." While the Apollo 13 mission did take place twenty years earlier, the phrase was not popularized until the film Apollo 13 was released in 1995.note 
  • Product Placement:
    • Essential to the story; particularly well-handled when the big red banner being lowered on the building across Karl-Marx-Allee from mom's bedroom window turns out to be a Coca-Cola ad.
    • Word of God is that Ariane works at Burger King because they were much easier to work with in terms of filming and use of trade dress than McDonald's.
  • Rage-Breaking Point: Near the end of the film, Ariane tosses down cups and silverware in their kitchen. She's actually doing it to find the letters from their father, which Christiane had hidden, but the emotional stress of the entire charade and her mother's worsening condition have also caught up with her.
  • Reconstruction: Yes, Communism was not a really great thing and most of the GDR former citizens are happy about the change, but, some find themselves without a job and the old organization was providing for everyone, even if very limited. Simply put, going from communism to capitalism is a massive shift that some people aren't really prepared for and doesn't give everybody benefits.
  • Remembered Too Late: When Alex and his sister ask their mother for her bank information so they can change her soon to be useless money for the Deutsche Mark, she says she actually hid it away, but can't remember where. Later in the movie she remembers she hid it in the old furniture they threw away, but when they tried to change it, they were told the cut-off date expired two days before.
  • The Reveal: When the family visits their old dacha toward the end of the film Christiane confesses to her children that their father did not abandon them. The plan was for the whole family to flee to the West, but at the last moment she decided to stay in the GDR out of fear. Their father had actually written letters to his children for years, but she hid them.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Two show up in the film:
    • Did Lara tell Alex's mother the truth during the emotional conversation between them that the audience sees through the window?
    • Was the Taxi driver really Sigmund Jähn?
  • Rule of Funny: Alex's quest to find Spreewaldgurken for Christiane. In reality, they were one of the few East German products that were available without interruption during and after reunification. You can still buy them today in most German supermarkets. But it helps underline that their supermarket has literally changed overnight.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • The iconic scene of the statue of Lenin being taken away by helicopter, his outstretched arm pointing to Christiane as if sending a final farewell.
    • The scene where a ceremonial changing-of-the-guard is dwarfed by a fleet of Coca-Cola trucks driving past, symbolising the diminishing power of the once-almighty totalitarian state in the face of capitalism.
    • There are a number of visual gags demonstrating how strange, overwhelming, and possibly ridiculous-looking capitalism must have been to someone who grew up under socialism:
      • When Alex first crosses the border, he heads straight for a nearby adult video store. Cue clip playing on an overhead screen of a porn actress pouring whipped cream onto her ridiculously enlarged breasts.
      • The drab, emptying corner store where Alex fails to buy Spreewald gherkins, reopens with shelves full of Western products, celebratory decorations... and a person wearing a funny bird costume.
      • When Christiane goes outside for the first time, new neighbours moving in from West Germany bring with them a whole host of Western-style furniture and decor, including a fuzzy pink lampshade.
  • Shout-Out:
    • A subtle but meaningful anachronism: Alex's partner-in-fake-newscasts Denis Domaschke is seen several times wearing a T-shirt from The Matrix, another movie about an artificial re-creation of a world that no longer exists. (It's only anachronistic in the final cut of the movie, though: a deleted scene expains that Denis has an idea for a film that is essentially exactly the same as The Matrix, which is why he's wearing that shirt.)
    • The fast-forward scene where they put Alex's mother's bedroom together while William Tell Overture plays, is a clear nod to a similar scene in A Clockwork Orange.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • The filmmakers did one hell of a job in getting the props correct for the fake-out East Germany.
    • Alex comes upon some bewildered Northern Vietnamese men dressed in white tank tops. Starting from the 1950s, East Germany and North Vietnam, both communist countries, began an exchange program for Vietnamese students to receive education and training overseas. The white tank tops are stereotypical clothing worn at home for Vietnamese men of that age group.
  • Storefront Television Display: Alex and his co-workers watch Erich Honecker's resignation speech on several televisions in the TV repair shop they work in.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: If the cabbie isn't the real Sigmund Jähn, he seems to be going along with the idea of being Jähn to humour a clearly-distraught young man.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: Alex and Denis have to carry the bedroom furniture to the eighth floor of the apartment building because the elevator is broken.
  • Title Drop: Of the rare visual kind in the mentioned statue scene.
  • Toppled Statue: A symbolic scene in which an old statue of Lenin is being flown away by a helicopter.
  • Unbroken Vigil: Alex is seen falling asleep while watching over his comatose mother in hospital.
  • Undercrank: Setting up Mom's sickroom.
  • The Unreveal: Just who is that cabbie? note 
  • Unreliable Narrator The film hints that for Alex’s family life in East Germany was not so idyllic and that Christiane may not have been the enthusiastic communist that Alex remembers.
    • During the prologue it is stated that Alex’s father fled to West Germany. This was a serious crime in the GDR and could have dire consequences for the family of the defector. Alex’s mother is briefly seen while she is interrogated by two men implied to be agents of The Stasi. She suffers a mental breakdown shortly after and only after that she devotes herself completely to Socialism.
    • When Alex enrolls Christiane’s former school director in his charade, they mention the fact that she was purged for being “too idealistic”, an euphemism used in countries behind the Iron Curtain for a member of the Communist Party who was unable to resist the urge to hold his superiors to account for their hypocrisy.
    • One of Christiane’s main activities is helping friends and neighbors to write protest letters. When we finally hear her dictating one in its entirety it is a sarcastic scolding of the Party’s tendency to overplan and blame the people for its own mistakes and shortcomings.
    • And finally there is the big reveal at the end.
  • Unusual Euphemism:
    • Alex refers to the fall of the Berlin Wall as a "recycling campaign," and the mass emigration of East Germans to the West as people failing to return from "vacations in Hungary," among others.
    • The "vacations in Hungary" comment is a reference to actual events - Hungary liberalised its politics and reduced security at its border several months before the fall of the Wall, leading to many East Germans, who were allowed to visit Hungary, going there specifically so that they could cross the border into Austria and escape to the West, oftentimes after meeting up with family members from the West in Hungary (as Westerners were allowed to visit Hungary too).
  • Visual Title Drop: One shot shows a statue of Vladimir Lenin being hauled away by an aerial crane. The statue of Lenin showed him raising his hand in a dramatic gesture, so when the tilted sculpture passes by Christiane, he appears to be waving goodbye.
  • Why We Are Bummed Communism Fell: And how it affected some people more than others- TV repairman Alex fairly quickly finds a better job as a satellite dish installer and his sister, finding her pursuit of a degree in Marxist-Leninist economics suddenly obsolete, gets a job at Burger King, but several neighbors in their 50s are unemployed with no prospects. Even East German cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn seems to have ended up as a cab driver after the fall of communism.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Inverted. While looking through an abandoned apartment, Alex is amazed to find Tempo Beans, Mocca Fix Gold, Globus Green Peas, and other East German foodstuffs that he had been unable to find anywhere.
    • He's also able to buy a number of East German clothes, including a military uniform laden with medals, from a street market. Truth in Television, as there are numerous stalls in Berlin where you can buy East German and Soviet clothes, hats, medals, and other memorabilia.
  • You Are Too Late: After Alex and Ariane finally find their family's life-savings, totaling 30,000 Ostmark, the bank teller informs them that they are past the deadline and are unable to exchange them for West German Marks. Not only that, but the bank wouldn't have accepted cash anyway.