I used to think of foreign-language films as rather specialist, indeed as rather unappealing, and I bought the (rather xenophobic, actually) stereotype of non-English-language cinema being humourless and pretentious. It wasn't until a neighbour coaxed me to watch 'Amélie' (2001) and another showed me 'Jean de Florette' (1986) that I realised foreign films were just, y'know, films, in foreign.
I fell into just as crude an assumption again this month: thinking my lodger (who is working class, socially conservative, uncurious and by his own admission has only read three books in as many years, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy) would find no appeal in these films. I was as surprised as glad, then, when he joined me for the latter two thirds of 'Goodbye Lenin!' seeming unperturbed by the German language with English subtitles, engrossed by a good story well told. I assume too much, and ungenerously.
A statue of Lenin is carried away by a helicopter
Perhaps I should end my comments there. I've said nothing of the film, but that it's good and enjoyable (surely the only things a positive review needs to convey). I'll tell you what it's about. It's a German comedy about the reunification of East and West Germany. A brief and crude history primer if you need it: East Germany was the North Korea of its day, but communist rather than isolationist, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the sudden end of the Cold War that started in the 1950s.
The main character, Alex, lives in East Berlin, and his staunchly socialist mother Christiane slips into a coma for eight months, missing the whole thing - the wall coming down, the rejoining of the two Germanies - and when she wakes she's so fragile that any shock, particularly this shock, could kill her. So her son and daughter, having just modernised their lives, wardrobes and decor, must hastily un-modernise and keep up the pretence that nothing has changed.
All signs of Western-style capitalism are covered up, with Coca Cola and the daughter's new job at Burger King carefully hidden away. East Germany missed the 80s entirely, but had the 70s twice, and everyone seems rather alarmed to return to the clothing they'd never realised was horrible. Despite this, the film eventually reveals a nostalgia for Soviet East Germany. The main character initially bemoans the great labour of creating this bubble of faux-East, but seems happiest there, sad that his country ended and disappeared with such relief and so little ceremony - that people were glad to leave, rather than to move in, once the borders opened.
Alex films fake news reports to keep up the illusion
I'd wondered what a German comedy would be like, since the stereotype of Germans attributes to them a dearth of merriment - though, of course, I've remarked on excellent comic moments in German films such as 'Faust' (1926) and 'M' (1931). 'Goodbye Lenin!' is fun, rather than funny, the kind of tone one might expect from a romantic comedy. Indeed, there is a romance between Alex and a nurse who tends to his mother, which looks briefly like it might be at the heart of the plot, but becomes almost irrelevant by the time the film is half-way through, as the focus switches to the convalescent Christiane.
In actual fact, the tone of this film reminds me most of 'Heimat 3' (2004), the sunniest of the Heimats, which was made in Germany at the same time as 'Goodbye Lenin!' and likewise regards the German reunification, though its extra duration allows it to run from 1989 to the Millennium. The early 90s were probably the most fun and exciting time to be German, but it's good to finally hear a word, even a nostalgia-tinged one, in favour of East Germany, a nation I'd previously thought the world was glad to be rid of.
P.S. Though 'Goodbye Lenin!' is in German, the title really is in English, and, like 'Shaft's Big Score!' (1972) delights me by including an exclamation mark.
P.P.S. I'm trying to regularise the blog to two posts each week, Thursdays and Sundays. I may visit Tuesdays on occasion for things which are not comments on films, or unlikely novelties.
I'll persuade y'all to watch something in German eventually, so why not this?
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