Alex (Daniel Bruhl) has a sweet face, preserved through an adolescence of high demand and low supply. He grew up in a small flat, in East Berlin, in the company of his sister Ariane (Maria Simon). Their mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass), has kept her halved family — the father escaped Berlin’s Wall when Alex and Ariane were young — in good spirits. After their separation, she decides to love her way of life despite everything else. Christiane becomes leader of the Young Pioneers. She writes protest salutations to the factories of ill-fitting underwear. She attempts to make communist politics more pleasant. She sets her heart at the hub of the community. Thus Wolfgang Becker sets up “Goodbye, Lenin!”, his hybrid of melodrama and social satire.
At the evening of one DDR ball, 1989, too many important things happen. Alex participates in a student demonstration for free press. He meets the woman he later loves. Christiane’s cab, en route to the official socialist celebration, gets held-up by the riot. She wears a red dress. After spotting her son, she collapses in the street. Her son gets arrested in the same intersection. Late medical attention worsens her condition. A heart attack sends her into a coma.
In the next eight months, East Berlin’s dominos fall down. The wall gets pulled. East Berliners can cross the checkpoint. Alex falls for his mother’s nurse, and Ariane for her supervisor. Already mother to an ex’s kid, she drops out of school to work at Burger King. Alex goes from television repairman to satellite dish salesman. The flats undergo redecoration. Old money gets exchanged for the Mark.
Then mom wakes up. Her still weak condition puts her at risk for surprises. She might not survive another heart attack. So, Alex lays down the law — the house must reflect the old state. The old furniture must come up from the cellar.
Since the corner store got remade, it only sells fancy, capitalist pickles from Holland. So, Alex meddles through garbage to find a jar bearing the old socialist label. He recruits his colleague to rig the television. His mom now watches old, DDR programs from her set, hooked up in the back to a VCR. A simulated newscast must explain the new, giant Coca-Cola banner next door. As his mom gathers strength, Alex musters more elaborate tricks to keep his mother content in the past. He realizes eventually, “the DDR I created for her became the one I would have wished for.” This house of illusion becomes his own ornate tribute and farewell to East Germany.
The film sears “Ostalgia” with quirk and comedy. Thus it manages to escape its high potential for overbearing nostalgia. The movie does like dramatic over-coincidence as a force of irritation. However, it does not stray into the mundanely implausible, wherein friends who work in coffee shops sport designer labels. “Goodbye, Lenin!” addresses social and political problems in their authentic environment. Its great gift is presenting history, well woven into a coherent story. The events of Germany and the history of this family interlace symbolically. The story of this family is the story of Germany, and vice versa.