This paper aims to examine the reception of Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! by cinema critics in Germany, France, and the US. The paper will also look at the two underlying stories attempting to find out which of them was perceived as the main story of Good Bye, Lenin! and to which extent it is related to how the film was marketed in these countries. The analysis is based on publications from various film critics of the German, French, and US press.
Good Bye, Lenin! tells the story of Christiane Kerner, a mother of two grown-up children, who raised them alone in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) because her husband has fled to the West. She is an active political participant and believes in the communist regime. When she sees her son Alex participating in a demonstration she suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma. When she awakes eight months later Germany is reunified. Communism was overthrown and the Berlin wall does not exist anymore. Everything she believed in had changed or disappeared. In order to prevent her from suffering another heart attack, her children reconstruct a room in their apartment as it used to be in times of the GDR. The creation of this imaginative, no more existing world gives Christiane stability and helps her recover, but lying to their mother and keeping up this false world gets more and more difficult for Alex and Ariane. One day, when Ariane wants to move out with her family, Alex has to realize that their mother has to know the truth as this is the only possibility for Christiane herself to face the past. All of them eventually drive to their summer cottage.
Good Bye, Lenin! was a national and international success and received nine German and other European Film Prices including the Cesar and the Blue Angel Award for Best European Film. It was the most successful German film in Great Britain ever “destined to become one of Germany’s biggest international hits” (BBC Films), and it was leading the box-offices in France and Israel. In some of Germany’s cinemas it is still shown everyday and, according to InsideKino, it was the fifth most successful German film for the last 23 years. Good Bye, Lenin! was sold in over 65 countries and 9.2 millions people went to watch it in the cinema, making it the third largest audience for European film in 2003 (Europa, Press Release). Cinemas in East Germany attracted even more moviegoers than in East Germany. And in the US, Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin is ranking 57 of the most successful German films with 4,064,200 viewers.
Good Bye, Lenin! was perceived differently in the three countries because of different weighting of the two underlying narratives but also due to marketing strategies. The film tells one story about the reunification of West and East Germany and overcoming communism in the GDR, while the other story is one of a loving son who sincerely cares for his sick mother and does everything possible to prevent her of another heart attack. The marketing strategies in the three countries aimed at either of the two stories. In some countries including the US, the mother-son story was used to make the film a success. In Europe it was marketed as a story about the unification of Germany and the people’s ability to adapt to its change. The younger generation adapted much faster and embraced not only the changes but the opportunities they got with this new freedom. Ariane, the older sister of Alex, drops out of university and starts working at Burger King. Alex lost his job at a television store and joined a West German company that supplied the East with satellite dishes. Older people who spent a lifetime in the GDR had a harder time to adjust to the new situation as many of them belonged to the party or supported the regime. They were basically left with their ideals and did not know what to support after communism has left, they were afraid of the new situation because they liked it the way it was in the GDR, especially if they were a figure of importance and influence. People like neighbor Ganzke turned into someone complaining about the West, and the impact the unification has on their lives, and started recalling the days when everything was better. As Alex invites neighbors and friends and explains that his mother does not know about the breakdown of communist GDR, neighbor Ganske comments how happy she was not to know. Other people, like Christine’s former party member and principal Dr. Klapprath, became victims of alcoholism. Yet, all of them enjoy and consume Western goods, neighbor Ganzke is watching television via satellite, Dr. Klapprath is probably drinking West German beer, Alex and Ariane fill their apartment with new furniture from the West.
Although Good Bye, Lenin! was marketed as a film about the German reunification in Europe, the audience’s perception was mixed. France’s cinema critics described it as comedy and satire on the East German trauma caused by the collapse of Soviet communism (Le Figaroscope). The film was perceived more as a political statement, a film that focuses on the individual’s life and its daily routine, while making fun of the capitalist liberalization, for example with the over-friendliness of Burger King employees (MCinéma). But it was not just seen as an intelligent comedy and clever plot (Telerama) but also as a film that surprises the audiences by its subtleties and makes you want to cry (Le Parisien). Inside Germany, the film was differently perceived. People from West Germany laughed at other parts of the film than people who used to live in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The West German audience got a glimpse into how life must have been under communist rule, while the East Germans remembered little nice things, many unfortunate events and finally the fall of the wall. The beauty of this movie lies in the different laughter it produces: hearty and sneering, sympathetic and unloving, laughter of remembrance and full of emotion (Die Zeit).Which of the two main narratives was seen as the film’s central one depended very much on the viewer’s origin – East or West German – and the viewer’s age, if the viewer grew up and spent a big part of his life in the East or if he was born around the time of the reunification. In contrast to the perception in France, German critics did not regard Good Bye, Lenin! as a comedy although it makes the audience laugh at times, and said the film’s main focus was on an adolescent’s every day life that has completely changed in a couple of months (Filmstarts). It addresses East-West prejudices and shows how the two countries grow together. The Tagesspiegel described the film in a deep, insightful way, calling Good Bye, Lening! the recognition of truth and the most intimate act that can happen between a divided nation. As West Germany never accepted the GDR’s rightful existence, it was symbolically done by this film.
Unlikely to have happened in other countries, Good Bye, Lenin! got the German press in motion – newspapers and magazines reported on life in the GDR, products from the East were displayed and everyone seemed to talk about the days when the wall was still there. Becker said he and his screenwriter Bernd Lichtenberg “weren’t aiming for this nostalgic reflex about the «good old days»” as both of them are West Germans and do not identify with the former GDR. Nevertheless, the usually sarcastic comments and jokes about and from East and West Germans turned into shared laughter.
In the US, Good Bye, Lenin! was marketed as a family film in which a loving son takes care of his sick mother but it was not exactly perceived as such. USA Today told its readers that Wolfgang Becker’s film was as “a very funny picture, though it’s never burlesqued and is … occasionally poignant” and most US critics indeed described Good Bye, Lenin! as a German comedy but one which “has a biting knowledge of that which history gives and history takes away … but US audiences don’t have to know from “ostalgie” to relate to the movie’s soulful humor” (Boston Globe). However, some critics in the US indicate that it was seen as a film about a historical event in Europe’s history and a tragic comedy on life in the former GDR. “In a disarmingly entertaining fashion, this multiaward-winning German bittersweet comedy works extremely well as a gently humorous parable of the hard life in postwar East Germany and a bittersweet epitaph that looks back on the failed experiment of communism with a surprisingly poignant glow of nostalgia” (Seattle Post Intelligencer). In any case, Good Bye Lenin! was a big success in the US and generally favorably reviewed. “It’s hard to imagine five better than this deliciously offbeat comedy, as wildly inventive as anything Billy Wilder ever conceived” (San Fransisco Chronicle).
Beside all different critics and marketing strategies, it is interesting that Wolfgang Becker did not intend to make a German unification film in the first place as he told the German magazine Kino. “However, I didn’t start off to make a film about German reunification. This is «only» a superb background for the film which is actually about the relationship between a son and his mother, a universal family story which can be understood everywhere.” Becker had no major part in the film’s marketing strategy and was not aware that he was going to boost Germany’s market share in feature films. No matter what Becker’s intention was, he produced a film that was and remained popular among East and West Germans of every age as well as internationally. Good Bye, Lenin! can be interpreted in more ways than the two given stories as it is rich in details and provides side stories that can be explored. The international audience did not have to be familiar with Germany’s historical event because it told a strong personal story and all important facts about the reunification and the GDR appeared in the archive footage.
In conclusion, various points are observed. The film was successful nationally and internationally. It won several European film prices and was nominated for the American Oscar for ‘Best Foreign Film’. The majority of film critics in Europe and the US were positive. The film was differently perceived which may partially be a result of the cultural backgrounds of the film reviewers and partially due to the effect of the different marketing strategies emphasizing the different main stories. The depth of the movie puts it in the hands of the individual viewer to find his version of Good Bye, Lenin! – let this be a comedy, a tragedy, or a mixture thereof.
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