In Germany, they call it Ostalgie -- nostalgia for the east. When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the whole world rejoiced, especially East Germans, who'd just spent 40 years in a glorified cage. But as capitalism spread across the land, people started longing for the good ol' days of communism. Or is it the bad ol' days of communism? Whichever it is, they long for the ol' days. Thrust into the future, they miss the only past they've ever had. And like retirees hanging out at the antique mall, they've latched on to the consumer goods of old as relics of times gone by. It doesn't take much -- a tube of Rot-Weiss toothpaste, for example, the unfortunate name signifying a society that was contentedly oblivious to the wonders of branding. And the duller-than-dull packaging is part of the appeal. Gray is in.
German director Wolfgang Becker has built a lovely little film around Ostalgie, called Good Bye, Lenin! The exclamation mark suggests a comedy, and it is a comedy, but with tragic overtones -- the melancholic yearning that nostalgia's made of. The premise is straight out of a farce: A son goes to extraordinary lengths to convince his bedridden mother, who was in a coma when their world turned upside-down, that nothing has changed. It's not that Alex (Daniel Bruhl) is such a good kid. It's just that his mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass), is a special case. Left to raise two children on her own when her husband defected to the West, she went slightly mad, her madness taking the form of a beyond-the-call-of-duty dedication to the true socialist path. It was seeing Alex participating in an anti-government rally that put her in the coma.
So, a guilty conscience but also a desire to protect his mother (and himself?) from an onslaught of Western materialism. When Christiane sees a Coca-Cola banner slung from a nearby building, Alex manages to convince her that, while she was in the coma, it was revealed that Coke, the very symbol of American imperialism, is in fact a socialist invention. The lies get bigger and bigger, including fake newscasts courtesy of a VCR hidden in the next room. And the humor comes out of just how far Alex is willing to go. To satisfy his mother's craving for Spreewald pickles, which are no longer commercially available, he picks through a trash bin, finds old empty jars, sterilizes them in boiling water, re-attaches the labels and fills them with new pickles. Later, in an abandoned apartment, he finds a can of Globus green beans. Jackpot!
It starts to seem like Alex has his own stake in keeping the thing going. He likes building a socialist utopia out of thin air. "The GDR I created for her increasingly became the one I might have wished for," he says in voice-over narration, and you almost wish East Germany could go back and give it another try, this time without the secret police prying into everybody's affairs. The movie satirizes communist stolidity, but it also satirizes capitalist vulgarity, and what we're left with is a sense of people caught betwixt and between, looking both forward and backward, sorting through the lies. Becker plays it mostly for laughs, but the laughs stick in our throats. How funny/sad it is that, having been swept into the dustbin of history, an entire country -- what used to be one, anyway -- is now filled with longing for yesterday's brooms.