Goodbye Lenin! and The Lives of Others

Set in East Berlin in 1989, Goodbye Lenin! is the story of woman (Katrin Sass) who wakes up from eight months in a coma, having completely missed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. Her health remains fragile, and any shock or excitement could induce a fatal heart attack, so her son Alex (Daniel Brühl) elects to hide the widespread societal change from her indefinitely.

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Good Bye Lenin! does an excellent job of recreating Communist East Berlin around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the atmosphere of newfound freedom that follows. However, the story itself is remarkably implausible, as Alex, who apparently has the time and resources to convincingly fabricate every area of his mother’s life, also manages to hold down a job and a girlfriend. It’s the set-up of an elaborate farce comedy, but it’s played largely straight.

Alex creates fake news footage and feeds it into his mother’s room. He comes up with elaborate lies to explain the presence of a Coca Cola advert outside her window or why there are so many people around from the West. These lies feel like they would be just as shocking to her as the truth, but the ever-increasing falsehoods build up with apparently no strategy to gradually reveal the truth to her.

As a Party zealot with her own dark past, Alex’s mother is hard to warm to, and the strain of maintaining the lie could be explored further. What it does best is present a period of rapid change and advancement, the likes of which few people will experience, and no doubt the references to the specific foibles of the East resonate strongly with the people who lived through it.

As soon as the wall falls, adverts move in, savings in old currency become useless, shops are refilled with glossy consumer products and new cars roll into town. This is the most interesting and well-crafted aspect of the film, and for this alone it is worth watching.

Similarly The Lives of Others examines the final years of the East German Republic, this time from the point of view of a Stasi agent (Ulrich Mühe) who is tasked to spy on a prominent playwright to look for any Western sympathies.

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This film takes a more sombre look at the period, with tension maintained throughout as playwright Georg (Sebastien Koch), his partner Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), and apparent accomplices converse, oblivious to the fact their every word is listened to, and any slip-up could land them all in prison.

It looks less at everyday changes brought about by the fall than Good Bye Lenin!, focusing instead on the cultural and atmospheric change of the new liberal government, as artists, intellectuals and the public become free to express themselves. And through the story of the Stasi agent who grows to sympathise with his suspect it has a strong message about our shared humanity.

The film’s final act then leaps forward to after the fall of the wall to observe the later consequences of the events, and the drastically changed power dynamics in German society. Much like The Conversation it’s as much about observation itself as what is being observed.

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