As If the Wall Never Fell

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In the east Germany of the '70S and '80s, Christiane (Katrin Sass) is a party-line do-gooder: dashing off imploring memos for better working conditions as she glances at her wall icon of Che Guevara. Her East Berlin neighbors may chafe under the drab dictatorship of the proletariat, but she believes. Then she suffers a severe heart attack and falls into a coma, regaining consciousness after eight months. A doctor urges Christiane's grown son Alex (Daniel Bruhl) to shield her from any further shocks. Just one problem: it's 1989, and the Wall has crumbled; communism is kaput. She'll die, literally, if she discovers that her socialist dream has predeceased her. So, Alex, out of love and desperation, tries to keep the old East Germany alive in her apartment. He rigs up their TV to a VCR and pipes in old news broadcasts, hires kids to sing the party songs, does his best to explain away the huge Coca-Cola sign outside her window.

Good Bye, Lenin!, a huge hit in Germany and across Europe, may sound like sitcom stuff, a wacky mistaken-identity plot inflated to national dimensions. In fact, as handled with expert tenderness by director and co-writer Wolfgang Becker, the trope works splendidly as both political metaphor and love story. If some Iraqis can look back with a twisted longing on the more orderly days of Saddam's rule, why can't East Germans get a little misty over the Honecker regime? As they do. It's called Ostalgie, or Eastalgia. The film taps the universal suspicion that whatever Now is like, Then was better.

Mother love in movies is usually treated as an affliction (paging Norman Bates). Here, it's Alex's expression of gratitude for the years Christiane devoted to raising him and an early shouldering of the responsibility a son may assume when a parent declines and the child becomes the caregiver. With the narrative briskness of Amelie and a nimble political savvy, Good Bye, Lenin! is a romantic comedy so smart and sweetly mature, it's liberating.