Nothing is worse for art than a botched attempt at incorporating current events. Whether it is Law and Order's much-maligned "ripped from the headlines" episodes or much of the horrendous, sappy, "we will never be the same" pap that came in the months after 9/11, too many writers mistake events for stories. One is just an incident, a one-off experience, and the other can support a film.
With a title like Good Bye Lenin, there is every reason to fear that this movie would be an overwrought exploration of the fall of communism. But instead, director/writer Wolfgang Becker has crafted a brilliant coming-of-age story, showing how the relationship between a mother and a son can force a boy to become a man, all in front of the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The young boy in question is Alex (Daniel Bruhl), an early-20-something living with his mother (Kathrin Sass) and sister Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) in East Berlin, 1989. They've lived in the same apartment since Alex's father left a decade earlier. After his departure, Mother threw her heart and soul into the East German socialist party, suspiciously as an emotional substitute. So when she sees Alex taking part in a political protest, she collapses.
She comes to eight months later. The good news is that she has a chance at recovering; the bad news is that her heart is weak, and any major shock could kill her – a major shock, such as learning that the Berlin Wall has fallen and Germany has been reunited, now as a democracy. Alex, ever the obedient son, has to try and shelter his mother from the outside world, which becomes a more and more difficult task as Berlin begins to radically change.
Indeed, Good Bye Lenin is about the fall of the Berlin Wall in the same way that, to borrow an ABC marketing slogan, SportsNight was about sports and Charlie's Angels was about law enforcement. This is a pure coming-of-age story, just with a unique and fascinating setting. Replace "fall of Communism" with "son coming out of the closet" or "dad running off" and you'd have a run-of-the-mill domestic drama.
Becker infuses the film with energy throughout, playing with time-lapse effects (speeding up and slowing down the surrounding action at appropriate times) while still focusing in on the story. It's a perfect balance between directing tricks and storytelling.
The performances are also sharp, especially Sass as the mother. Her rising skepticism as Alex continues to lie to her about the outside world is priceless.
But in the end, this film is about Alex. While he must continually hide the real world from his bed-ridden mother, we watch him mature. He meets a young woman – one of his mother's nurses, in fact – and falls in love. He gets a job in the new Germany selling satellite dishes. He meets a friend from the west who dreams of filmmaking. His world is opened up in ways it hadn't been before the fall, and his journey is what makes Good Bye Lenin such a powerful experience – not some political statement.
Good Bye Lenin is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1). It shows a little bit of edge enhancement, but otherwise is handled well. The colors, in particular, stand out. Most of the colors in the film itself are intentionally dull, showing an age to the setting. But when we do get color, mainly coming after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we get it bright and bold.
Dobly Digital 5.1 is provided and makes excellent, if sparing, use of the surround speakers. The protest shots show off the most range – it sounds like the viewer is right in the middle of the march. The dialogue is also very clear (if you speak German).
The rough cut of Good Bye Lenin was 164 minutes long, so there is a plethora of deleted scenes available on this DVD, all with optional commentary from Becker. In fact, the "commentary" starts with ten minutes of Becker and an uncredited companion talking about the process, and then moves on to explaining why each of the scenes was paired down. It is incredibly in-depth and might be my favorite deleted scene segment of any DVD.
There are two full-length commentaries on the disc – one featuring Becker and another with Bruhl, Sass and other uncredited members of the cast. The latter is mainly the actors' reactions to the film, but does contain some interesting stories from the set. The former, though, matches the info and candor that Becker showed in the deleted scenes commentary. The commentary tracks can also be displayed just as subtitles with the film's original soundtrack. Beware, though – when switching during playback between commentary tracks, it is possible to get a different subtitle set than the audio commentary track playing.
It should be noted that all the commentary tracks are in German. Subtitles are given at the bottom of the screen, but it means that viewers do have to pay attention to the track, rather than tuning in and out while doing something else.
But wait – there's more. A smaller making-of featurette plays like an electronic press kit, but there is a fascinating 20-minute documentary called "Lenin Learns to Fly" that describes the incredible amount of digital effects that went into recreating the Berlin of just 15 years ago. East Berlin of 1989 was one without logos, billboards and advertisements – all of those had to be removed. The buildings were generally run down (or, at least, dirty) – those effects had to be added. When watching the movie, none of these shots spring to mind when it comes to special effects, but the documentary shows just how much work had to be done in post-production to recreate 1989 in Germany.
There's also an option to watch the complete, unedited (and fake, of course) "Aktuelle Kamera" newscasts that Alex and his friend create to fool Alex's mother. Previews for other Sony Pictures Classics releases round out one of the most exhaustive special features sections I've ever seen on a single disc release.
In more than five months on screens in America, Good Bye Lenin never showed on more than 120 screens at one time, and it took almost a full year to gross four million dollars. That this film managed to slip somewhat under the radar is an absolute shame, but hopefully it can find an audience on DVD. With an incredible amount of special features, a solid transfer, this is a must-have disc.