On the 9th November 2014, people around the world commemorated the fall of the Berlin Wall. Following World War Two, Germany was divided between the powers that had won the war: Britain, America and Soviet Russia all occupied a section of Germany. Berlin itself was divided into East and West Berlin, with West Berlin occupied by the British, American and French forces and East Berlin occupied by the Soviet Russian forces, though the Soviet government and the three Western Allies disagreed about whether it was one single state governed by four powers or whether each power claimed their own section. Those who did not want to live in Communist East Germany fled to Democratic West Germany through West Berlin, and so the Soviet government erected a wall dividing the city along political lines: the Berlin Wall.
The wall was famously a source of tension between Russia and America and was a factor in the Cold War between the two powers. It also divided the people of Berlin, splitting up families and friends because crossing the wall legally was massively restricted and many who tried to cross illegally were killed. On 9th November 1989, the restrictions were lifted by the East German government following protests and civil unrest, and people literally chipped away at the wall. It was demolished the following summer by the government, though some pieces of it still stand as a reminder, some still covered in the graffiti that was sprayed on it in protest. 2014 marks 25 years since the wall ‘came down’.
Goodbye Lenin! is a German-language film set in 1989 immediately before and in the months after the Berlin Wall came down. Alex (Daniel Brühl) lives in East Berlin under Soviet rule and felt inspired when he was a child to become an astronaut by Sigmund Jähn’s trip into space. He takes refuge in dreams about the stars as his parents’ marriage disintegrates. When his father leaves, his mother (Katrin Saß) goes into a depressive spiral and becomes completely invested in the Socialist propaganda of Soviet-occupied East Berlin. She is on her way to a ceremony recognising her contributions to the state when Alex is arrested during a protest against the Berlin Wall. She has a heart attack and goes into a coma, even as he is dragged away by the police. By the time she wakes up eight months later, the Berlin Wall has come down and East Berlin is becoming rapidly westernised. Alex is fearful that the shock of learning that her beloved Soviet state has fallen will kill her, since her heart is now weakened. He constructs an elaborate scheme to prevent her from finding out that Germany has changed so much in eight months, creating a world for her in which the Berlin Wall never fell.
The film mixes archive footage and film designed to look as though it came from a grainy 70’s home camera or 80’s news-reels. The details about Soviet-occupied Berlin and the time immediately afterwards are fascinating and involving, from the foods that were only produced in the Soviet countries to the adorable ‘Little Sandman’ children’s TV show (which had two different versions in East and West Germany) to the stalls selling East German antiques after the wall came down to cater to ‘Ostalgie’ (nostalgia for East Germany).
Goodbye Lenin! is a film that is unique, sometimes hilarious and sometimes tragic. Alex’s absurd scheme to keep his mother from learning the truth is about much more than his mother’s health, as he responds to a changing world by pretending that everything has stayed the same. However, as the film goes on, it becomes more difficult to keep up the charade. Ultimately, what Alex doesn’t realise is that his mother is much more resilient than he thinks she is. In fact, he begins to discover that there was a lot more to the story of his father leaving than he knows. Both he and his mother are keeping secrets from their family and manufacturing a reality to protect them, without realising that the truth may hurt, but it also gives people a chance to heal.
If you want to know more about Berlin…
Learn more about the architecture and history in The Rough Guide to Berlin by John Gawthrop and Christian Williams (BOOK ZONE 914.31550488).
For a unique perspective on Berlin, watch Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (LOBBY DVD AREA 791.4353). Made in 1927 by Walter Ruttmann, Berlin is a series of abstract images of the city with a musical score, which encapsulate the atmosphere after the First World War, when it was ruled by the Weimar government. It showcases some of the architecture of Berlin that changed so much over the Twentieth Century.
Read The Berlin Novels by Christopher Isherwood (BOOK ZONE 823.91), based on the same period following the First World War. They provide one of the most famous versions of Berlin seen in literature, and inspired the musical Cabaret (LOBBY DVD AREA 791.436). It is interesting to contrast the city and its inhabitants after the two wars. The contrast with Cold War Germany is startling, as Weimar Germany was known for its decadence and Cold War East Germany for its austerity.