Anyone who has ever lied to a mother, and lied big, supposedly for Mom's own good, will understand and appreciate the premise of Good Bye, Lenin!, a charming new film from Germany. There are just some things that mothers are better off not knowing, right? My own mother thinks that I sell insurance in upstate New York and have a lovely wife and a child on the way, and I'll thank you to keep it that way, Memphis. Best not to rock the boat. Anyway, not all mothers are sheltered from so delicate an issue as the fall of communism and the infiltration of Western culture, Coca-Cola, and Burger King. So I suppose most of us can count ourselves lucky as we navigate the white lies and half-truths that surround, say, why we are in the "disorderly conduct" section of the newspaper police report or where we are getting the money for all those new clothes and cars.
Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass) is a single mom with two normal children, Alex and Ariane (Daniel Bruhl and Maria Simon, respectively). The year: 1989. Roseanne ruled the airwaves and Johnny Carson still ran The Tonight Show. George the First was the president. However, to an East German family, these would be trivialities. And to a proud socialist like Christiane, these would be the things that the Berlin Wall was meant to keep out. Well, one day, son Alex marches in a demonstration, just as Mom is on her way home from work. She catches sight of Alex being dragged off by police and has a heart attack in the middle of the protest. Alex is released, only to find his mother in a coma, which lasts eight months.
When she awakens, much has changed. Alex has a new sweetheart: Mom's nurse. Ariane is married to a doofy West German named Rainer. And, oh yes, that wall came down, and Germany is trying its hand at capitalism. The doctors caution the kids that any shock might send Mom into another, fatal heart attack, so Alex's solution is to keep Mom in the dark about the whole "fall of communism" by keeping her in bed and rigging her TV with old tapes of pre-fall news programs and new ones cobbled together by his video-enthusiast friend Denis (Florian Lukas). Mother is, after all, a good socialist, and the crass influx of all things corporate and, well, American, just might do her in.
If it sounds like a sitcom plot, it kinda is. Compare this, if you will, to 50 First Dates, another recent comedy about manufacturing elaborate lies around a loved one's fragile health problem. In that case, Drew Barrymore's character forgets everything that happened the day before (and consequently, many days before), so her family labors to keep her thinking that it is the day before, lest she fret the passage of time. In both cases, the elaboration of the ruse becomes so complicated that outside forces disapprove, and the executors of the deception learn that lies can be heavier than the truth even with the best intentions. Good Bye, Lenin! bests 50 First Dates by a lot. Granted, the latter film concocts a zany premise and then lets it sit, sloth-like, on the shoulders of personality/performer Adam Sandler. What I like about foreign films is that they rely on story and subtlety and characterization more than American, or rather, Hollywood, films. Writer/director Wolfgang Becker takes great pains to see every element of the deception through, from the meticulous (and credible) methods by which Alex constructs Mom's fantasy post-communist communism to the funny accidents that happen or almost happen that could shatter Mom's health and the premise altogether. (Like the epic-sized Coca-Cola banner that gets draped on the building next door or the upstairs neighbor whose West German TV can be heard through the ceiling.)
Ultimately, this is a bittersweet comedy and one that does not fit easily into any kind of emotional category. And it had never occurred to me that there might still be some diehard communists in Germany longing for the good old days and still having trouble adjusting. As an American, that's not quite in my teaching, I confess. But as we continue to disrupt and reorganize the politics and economies of countries in the Middle East, it's nice to have a sweet family comedy like this to remind us that there are sweet moms also in Iraq and Afghanistan who have children who love them enough to tell them that things are better than they are just to keep Mom happy.