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My stepfather went into surgery on Sept. 10, 2001. Complications in the operating room sent him toward the brink of death and left him in a coma for 45 days. When he finally regained consciousness, he awoke in a vastly changed world. To this day, now fully recovered and in good health, he regards the infamous events of the first day of his coma with a sense of puzzlement and wonder. They are a little unreal to him because he wasn't there when they happened. And that's the exact subject matter of German writer-director Wolfgang Becker's comedy Good Bye, Lenin. How do you adjust to momentous events when they happen while you're in a coma?

Good Bye, Lenin (Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Language Film) is the story of an East German teacher named Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass) who has a heart attack and slips into a coma in October of 1989. When she regains consciousness eight months later, she no longer even lives in the same country. The Berlin Wall has been demolished, the East German government has collapsed, and reunification is well underway. These developments might be disorienting enough were Christiane a stereotypical oppressed East Berliner hungering for the prosperous life of the West that lay for nearly half a century so physically close and yet so politically far away.

But Christiane has never seen herself as oppressed. In fact, she's a socialist true believer, and in addition to singing the praises of Marxist-Leninism in her classroom, she's long been a buoyant volunteer leader of a Young Pioneers troop, the Communist version of the Boy Scouts. In short, the changed world to which Christiane wakes up in the summer of 1990 is not one she's predisposed to embrace with any enthusiasm. And that provides the film its key narrative wrinkle and its comedic source material.

When Christiane regains consciousness, the doctors warn her loving twentysomething children, Alex (Daniel Bruhl) and Ariane (Maria Simon) that her heart remains frail and that she should be protected from any stress. Knowing her as they do, they are terrified that she might die of shock if she were to learn that her beloved East Germany no longer exists. So they take her home and endeavor to establish and control a fictional environment where the world appears to remain as she remembers it. This proves more of a challenge than it might first seem. Mom wants food from East German suppliers that have been taken over and improved by Western companies. So Alex spends a lot of time spooning new and better products into old cans and jars. Before visiting with Christiane, Ariane and Alex's girlfriend, Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), change out of their stylish new jeans and tops into dowdy, ill-fitting skirts and blouses that they've purchased at a flea market, griping that they're just buying back their own clothes, which they were so glad to have thrown away.

When Mom wants to begin watching TV, Alex locates old East German shows to play on a VCR he conceals from her. When she wants to watch news, he plays old news tapes, joking with friends that in the late East Germany, the news never changed anyway. A considerable crisis occurs when Christiane spots a huge red Coke sign painted on the high-rise across the street from her bedroom window. This development requires Alex and a buddy (Florian Lukas) with a camcorder to fake a newscast "revealing" that the formula for Coca-Cola was actually developed by an East German in the early 1950s, thereby parodying all the claims that Soviets invented everything significant in the 20th century.

Good Bye, Lenin persistently pokes fun at the inferior products produced by the Soviet system. Food is bland. Clothes are one-size-fits-all. And everything is scarce. Queues are ubiquitous and waiting lists for housing and automobiles are the norm. We laugh repeatedly at Christiane's mistakenly prideful notion that things are suddenly getting so much better in her beloved "East" Germany.

Good Bye, Lenin runs nearly two hours and probably a half hour longer than necessary. A coming-of-age subplot about Alex's dawning romance with Lara could have been trimmed without losing anything. But the picture is clever and funny, and it provides a touching portrait of family loyalty and love. And at the end, we realize that it is something more than that: a deft and stimulating metaphor about a spectacularly failed idea. Christiane is a stand-in for her entire Marxist homeland. At her best, she is egalitarian and generous. She wants to take actions that will benefit those around her. But she is single-minded in her pursuit of what she thinks is best, even if that means withholding information and lying to her loved ones. The neat and provocative strategy of this film is to recognize that the plenty of capitalism is not without its own problems and that the authoritarianism everywhere practiced by Soviet socialists betrays, but does not erase, the humanity of a communitarian ideal.

click to enlarge Love blossoms between Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) and Alex (Daniel Bruhl) while Alex conceals the reunification of Germany from his mother in the hilarious comedy Good Bye, Lenin.
  • Love blossoms between Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) and Alex (Daniel Bruhl) while Alex conceals the reunification of Germany from his mother in the hilarious comedy Good Bye, Lenin.

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