“Goodbye, Lenin”; Hello, Wolfgang Becker
by Patricia Thomson
Who would have guessed that a comedy about the fall of East Germany would become a smash success? But “Good Bye, Lenin!” is that and much more. Its box office already dwarfs that of “Run Lola Run,” Germany’s last breakout hit, which was also produced by the X-Filme collective. But more surprisingly, “Good Bye, Lenin!” has also tapped a deep reservoir of nostalgia towards East Germany, a country and culture that disappeared overnight.
“Good Bye, Lenin!” takes place in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall tumbled down. Twenty-year-old Alex (Daniel Brühl) has a peculiar problem. His mother, a Socialist do-gooder, suffered a heart attack and fell into a coma just before the Wall fell. Eight months later, she wakes up to a changed world. East and West Germany have reunified, Coca-Cola signs and Renault cars are everywhere, and the old, familiar Socialist order has vanished. But the doctor warns Alex that any shock to his mother could be fatal. So Alex turns their apartment into an East German biosphere. At first the system works, with Alex diligently chasing down the last jars of Mokkafix instant coffee and Spreewald gherkins to keep the illusion alive. But inevitably signs of change filter in, causing Alex to pursue ever more desperate measures to explain the telltale clues. He and a coworker at a satellite TV company create an alternative history through fake newscasts piped into the mother’s TV set, recasting images of Germans pouring over the Wall, for instance, as refugees from the West fleeing capitalism’s drug problems and rampant commercialization. Alex’s mother watches these newscasts — and Alex — with a mix of bemusement and wonder, while friends and neighbors join the ruse, conjuring up a parallel world in which Lenin ultimately prevailed.
indieWIRE recently spoke with director Wolfgang Becker and lead actor Daniel Brühl in the New York offices of Sony Pictures Classics; the film hits theaters tomorrow.
indieWIRE: “Good Bye Lenin!” is a breakout hit in Germany. What are your numbers?
Wolfgang Becker: The numbers right now are 6.5 million spectators, and the film is still running after a year with more than 100 prints. In the summer season, Germany has a lot of outdoor screenings — sometimes they’re huge, with 5,000 people — so we can easily make the 7 million mark. [Ed. note: That far exceeds the 3 million Germans who came to see “Run, Lola, Run,” which, like “Goodbye, Lenin!,” was produced by X-Filme.) “Good Bye Lenin!” is now among the top five German films since World World II. The others are comedies that haven’t been released outside of Germany.
iW: What age groups have been attracted to the film?
Becker: The whole range: 80 percent of movie tickets in Germany are sold to 12-25 year-olds in general. But this film had a lot of spectators who never go to the movies. So we have a lot of moviegoers in their 40s and 50s, as well as families. This is the kind of film where three generations could see the film together. It’s not too simple for one generation or too complicated for another. Especially in the East, it’s had this kind of family film character. But it hasn’t been so successful among the 12-16 age group.
Daniel Brühl: Reunification was awhile ago, so if you ask a 12-year-old child what the GDR was, they’re not going to know. Even my knowledge about it was very [limited], because I was 11 when the Berlin Wall came down.
iW: So you learned a lot when making this film, Daniel?
Brühl: Yes, it was nice. Like a long, long history lesson. Going to the film set was like going to a museum. We build these things and got all the props, and all the East German actors were sighing and remembering. But for me, everything was new. I learned about these Spreewald pickles and the cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn, who was a hero in East Germany. But in West Germany nobody knew him.
Becker: They refused to report about him. They were angry because it wasn’t a West German who was the first German in outer space.
But now the film is being shown in history classes. There’s a program is called School and Film. So in addition to reading Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller, they see films — both art films and mainstream films. “Good Bye Lenin!” had a connection to their history lesson. One day, Daniel was driving on a motor scooter, and these Turkish boys, about 12 or 14 years old, all recognized him. They said, “Wow! We saw you in this film!” They had to see it in history class! [laughs]
iW: “Good Bye, Lenin!” has become a true cultural phenomenon. Moviegoers have brought East German candies, beer, and cola to the screenings, and worn old East German athletic outfits. Did this reaction take you by surprise?
Becker: In some ways. But this was mainly at the premiere screenings and in big cinemas in the East. Our main actress, [East German] Katrin Sass, was there, and it was like a homecoming! But I experienced the same thing in the Czech Republic and Poland. In Warsaw they brought us to the theater in a convoy of Trabants. The cinema was draped with red banners — a mixture of Socialist and Coca-Cola banners. Inside there was a typical Polish worker and typical farmer offering bread and salt, like in the old Socialist tradition. They had a Lenin lookalike who introduced everyone on stage, speaking in this old Socialist diction: “Comrades!” and so on.
Some of the Western media gets it wrong and think, “Now they want the old Socialism back,” which is stupid. It’s not about politics, it’s about people sharing similar memories. No West German or American has ever experienced anything like this, when your everyday culture suddenly stops overnight and is replaced by something else. After some time, you remember the old stuff, and there’s a kind of nostalgia. It’s like sitting on a starry night playing a sad song on your guitar and feeling pretty well because you’re sad. You think back on the life you lived under Socialist circumstances.
iW: Has this perspective surfaced elsewhere in art or literature?
Becker: There are some quite controversial books by young authors, who are now in their late 20s. They experienced this change during puberty and have a memory of how it was to live in the GDR. Everyone was saying, in some way, “I like the way I was brought up — not in a political way, but everything I experienced, like friendship. I could really rely on people. I had deep relationships.” They have a positive memory towards that. People in the West expect people [from the Eastern Bloc] only to complain how terrible it was and how everyone had to suffer. But it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t a society where there was a Stasi guy behind each newspaper, or you were living in a dark prison.
iW: Why did it take so long for such recollections to emerge in a public way?
Becker: It always takes about 10 years to have some distance. And distance allows you to laugh about yourself and things you wouldn’t dare laugh about when you’re right in the middle of it.
Also, two or three years after reunification, everybody was fed up with the subject. There was a lot of frustration after a short period of euphoria, and people found out it cost billions and billions, which was very bad for the West Germany economy. East Germans found out that, despite this, life was not getting dramatically better, and they were facing new problems. Whenever you switched on the TV or radio, it was all about this subject. So everybody was fed up. If you went to the movies, you wanted to see something else, far from this subject.
iW: The story idea for “Good Bye, Lenin!” was rejected by funders when screenwriter Bernd Lichtenberg first came up with the idea over a decade ago, correct?
Becker: Bernd is from Cologne, but he moved to East Berlin in 1991 for almost a year. In this period, he had the idea for the film. ARD, the television channel that ended up coproducing it, was not interested when he went to them in 1992. It was exactly the same guy who coproduced the film seven years later! He couldn’t even remember that he refused the subject [laughs]. It’s completely understandable. The time was not right for it then.
iW: “Good Bye, Lenin!” went over quite well in England. How do you think Americans will respond? Obviously, there are a lot of jokes and cultural references most Americans won’t get, such as “The Sandman” cartoon or the confusion between the young Pioneers and Hitler youth. But Americans are notoriously weak on world history, even in broad strokes. Will we get it?
Becker: “The Sandman” is a television show that was on every night at children’s bedtime. There was an East German animation and a West German animation. That was one of the few things that the West Germans took over from the East, [adopting their animation after reunification]. The East German version was more loved by the kids, better animated, the stories were better, and so on. So it stands for something.
The more subtle cultural references are only understood by East Germans. But all the major twists of the storyline are understood by everybody. Of course, there are always people who don’t understand anything. I think that’s a global phenomenon [laughs]. But as I said, “Good Bye, Lenin!” is not about politics; it’s about life in a totalitarian system, it’s about kisses, kids, parents, all the important things of life.