“Goodbye, Lenin!”

Research paper for West Civ II

How would you feel if you woke up one day and everything you knew and loved had been torn down? This is the question from which Alex attempts to protect his mother in the film Goodbye, Lenin! Living on the east side of the Berlin Wall, Alex’s mother (Mother) became a fervent nationalist and communist activist when her husband left and crossed to West Germany. Her children and her country were the center of her life. She married the fatherland, like a nun weds the Lord. Mother’s life was entirely nation-centric.

Alex, on the other hand, was a very world-centric boy. He aspired to be a cosmonaut, to view the world as a single entity. Though he loved his mother and respected her for her social works, he did not agree with “the party” and, in 1989, joined in the protests. When Mother witnessed Alex being arrested at a protest, she suffered a heart attack and fell into a coma. But during the eight months that she was unconscious, the world turned upside-down. The Wall came down, and East Germany embraced capitalism. When Mother woke from her coma, the doctors warned Alex that any shock could be fatal. His mother’s fragility became the impetus for Alex to manufacture a complex world of a Communist East Germany that no longer existed, or never did exist, for that matter.

Mother always had pride in her country and felt that everyone else should too. She supported the country’s successes and actively helped fix its problems. She instilled national pride in the children she taught and criticized when companies and workers did not also take pride in their labors and products. Mother was an idealist and did not acknowledge the problems that led to the protests.

Alex was as rebellious as any other young adult. He grew up knowing that his father ran off, having latched on to the grand capitalist ideas of the West. Though Alex resented his father’s abandonment and vaguely thought of him as a traitor, no child could resist asking the question, “What is so great that Father would leave us?” Something about the West had its appeal- the promise of freedom. In truth, freedom is a hazy concept. Who doesn’t think they could have and use more freedom? Freedom from what- government control, tyranny of the majority, monopoly of big business, fascism? Alex fought for a hazy concept, Mother fought for an ideal, and neither knew exactly why they were doing it.

As Alex shielded his mother from real world, he began to create her ideal one, and for the first time, he could understand why she loved it. While he struggled to sift through remnants of the past, he realized how much they were leaving behind in exchange for unification. Alex’s sister had to quit school to work at Burger King. The locally owned television repair shop where Alex worked had to close, and Alex found a job selling and installing satellite dishes.

A humorous but pointed motif in the film was pickles; after the unification, the only pickles available were from Holland. Spreewald pickles represented pre-unification Berlin, the life that Mother knew and loved, and Alex was constantly in search of them. One may have chuckled each time Alex asked about pickles, until the realization set in that whoever worked to produce Spreewald pickles was now superfluous. For everything Western that moved in, the Eastern equivalent was displaced, and that included the people.

Mother suspected that her children were keeping something from her, but she did not pursue it much. A few glimpses of the real world made their way into her bedroom, but Alex concocted elaborate news programs with his technician co-worker to explain the slip-ups. As the truth became more evident, Alex’s imaginary East Germany grew into a great and benevolent nation. Mother began to understand everything that Alex was doing for her. As much as Alex realized what was good about their old life, Mother realized what was not, because she could compare Alex’s artificial world with the reality of eight months prior.

One of the most poignant lines of the film was when Alex was riding in a taxicab that was driven by his childhood hero, the cosmonaut Sigmund Jahn. When Alex asked Jahn what it was like in space, Jahn replied, “It was beautiful up there. But very far from home.” This statement succinctly applies to the new city of Berlin. The fast food chains, imported products, and fashionable clothing symbolized a better life, but were also very unfamiliar or even invasive. The fact that Jahn was driving a taxi illustrated how capitalism often eats up its children. (This scenario was figurative. The cab driver claimed he wasn’t the cosmonaut, though you are led to believe he was, and the real Sigmund Jahn worked for the DLR and ESA as a consultant after the unification.) The government no longer provided everyone with a job, and those who were ill prepared for the change were left behind in the dust. People embraced the new freedom and abandoned everything they had, their jobs, their homes.

Near the end of the film, Mother revealed that when her husband left, they had planned that she was to follow with the children; she did not, because she felt threatened by government officials and feared that she might lose the children if she attempted to cross over to the West. Because of this revelation, one realizes that Mother had also dreamt of a better life beyond the Wall. When she could not follow through, she focused entirely on the betterment of East Germany. This may be because she wanted to disguise that fact that she had considered defecting, and thus protecting herself and her children. This also may be because she was trying to convince herself that she was right to stay; inventing a cause allowed her to hide from her mistake and her fear by justifying them. Or she may have just wanted to try to improve the world for her children to the best of her ability and situation.

Goodbye, Lenin! was both entertaining and thought provoking. Alex’s frequently ironic narrative brought humor to modern human plight. The movie illustrated both the negative and positive aspects of a Communist government in practice and how people inside and outside of the system view it. Last, but certainly not least, Goodbye, Lenin! was a story of a loving family and h

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