Creating a virtual DDR in one house

Wolfgang Becker worked on a simple but ingenious plot with newcomer Bert Lichtenberg to generate comedy and drama in his popular film «Good Bye Lenin!» which premieres today in Athens. The film was a huge success with both critics and the public in Germany, winning practically all the 2002 state film prizes taking those for best film, direction, leading male role, supporting male actor, music, editing and sets as well as the public’s prize. Set in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is about to fall, taking the East German regime with it, «Good Bye Lenin!» uses world-shaking events as a backdrop to the story of one family. Instead of participating in the rush to embrace the West, young East Berlin TV repairman Alex Kerner, played to perfection by Daniel Bruhl, embarks on an increasingly desperate attempt to construct a virtual East Germany in his family’s apartment. His mother, a firm supporter of the old regime, is in a coma after a heart attack and doctors have warned that any shock may kill her. Devoted to his mother, who brought him and his sister up alone after their father’s sudden desertion many years earlier, Alex feverishly sets about recreating the decor, food and even television of crumbling East Germany to calm and reassure her. But keeping up the pretence that nothing has changed is increasingly difficult as the old Germany disappears before his eyes and evidence of the encroaching West is visible everywhere. Tension builds as Alex’s girlfriend, a Russian nurse, urges him to tell his mother the truth, and his sister, cheerfully discarding whatever she can from the old days, even replacing her boyfriend with a new one from the West, is reluctant to keep up the charade. Then a new twist appears in the ongoing mystery of Alex’s parents’ separation, propelling him into taking the next steps into adult life. These are the bare bones of the story and it would unfair to reveal much more. The scenes where Alex collects food for his mother, at times reduced to decanting pickles into jars with familiar labels – foodstuffs which have subsequently attained iconic status – struck such a strong chord in Germany that the film gained the reputation of evoking nostalgia for the former regime, a notion the director firmly rejects. «This is a mass media invention,» Becker told the press in Athens during his September visit for a one-off screening of «Good Bye Lenin!» at the Premier Nights festival. «The film is not about nostalgia for old East Germany; I never intended that. That was invented by journalists trying to explain why the film pleased so many people.» The old regime was oppressive, Becker commented, but the people who had lived in it saw absolutely everything swept away. Whole ranges of products simply disappeared from store shelves, to be replaced by Western goods, as if nothing in the East had ever been of any value; as if everything had been a mistake. «The film allows people from former East Germany to acknowledge their past,» said Becker, «but the film isn’t about about reunification; that’s just the setting. The film is about a broken home. After unification, Germany broke up, like a broken home, into two parts. The son in the film creates a world; he improves on it. I wanted to show the human side – experiencing first love, becoming a parent, the love between mother and son.» Highlights of the film play on the sudden intrusions of the new into Alex’s carefully constructed alternative reality and on his ever more frantic attempts to explain the seemingly inexplicable. He enlists a former TV repair colleague with a genius for visual electronic media into producing fake television news broadcasts using real footage from the time and a voiceover rewritten for each occasion. In an apotheosis of spin, the otherwise incomprehensible influx of West Germans into the Eastern sector is presented as a generous gesture by Eastern leader Erich Honecker to grant refuge to the burgeoning number of Westerners seeking asylum from the capitalist regime.