Directed by Wolfgang Becker
Written by Wolfgang Becker and Bernd Lichtenberg
Produced by Stefan Arndt
Starring Daniel Brühl, Katrin Saß, Maria Simon, Chulpan Khamatova, Florian Lukas, Alexander Beyer, Burghart Klaußner, Michael Gwisdek.
This brilliant, funny, touching and subtle comedy is a delight that grows the further one goes into it. Set in 1989 at around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall it marks the extraordinary and the ordinary everyday changes in the lives of an East German family during this momentous event in history.
Significant in the background, in the 1970’s childhood of our protagonist Alexander Kerner (Daniel Brühl), is the launching of the circumlunar Soyuz rockets. These events are magically woven into the storyline like the interweaving orbits featured in the sculpture atop the Berlin World Clock in Alexanderplatz and provide an interesting symbol for the decreasing sense of isolationism of the East German Republic as the decades march onward through glasnost, as well as for the beginnings of world trends towards a global village identity.
According to Alex’s voice-over, after August 26th 1978 when the first German, Sigmund Jähn (Stefan Walz), was launched into space, things in the Kerner family started going seriously downhill. In quick succession his father is accused of having Western sympathies, and leaves, apparently having defected to the West. His mother Christiane (Katrin Sass) becomes so depressed she stops talking and only after eight weeks in hospital does she return to normal. Perhaps compensating for her husband’s political non-conformity as well as for her loss, Christiane then becomes conspicuously zealous in her service to the Socialist Fatherland, to the point where she wins an award in recognition.
Ten years later, on October 7th 1989, Alex is part of a peaceful demonstration in front of the Berlin Wall which meets the full force of the East German police in a violent confrontation. Once again momentous events happen almost simultaneously; Alex meets the girl he will fall in love with, he is arrested, and his mother, seeing him carried off, collapses in the street with a heart attack. He is released only to find that her condition is much worse than it could have been had he been able to help her straight away. She is comatose and remains so for eight months. Alex’s voice-over against a shot of the moon tells us that while asleep she orbits the world like the Soyuz rockets do the moon. He continues that her sleep keeps her in the dark during the resignation of the hard-line Communist leader of the German Democratic Republic, Erich Honecker, responsible, in 1961, for building the Berlin Wall. She likewise sleeps through the ‘relentless triumph of capitalism’ and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Eight months later Christiane awakes with a heart so fragile that the Doctor warns that any excitement could kill her. From this point the film delicately shifts gear into bizarre comedy, as Alex enlists the reluctant help of his sister Ariane (Maria Simon) and her new West German boyfriend Rainer (Alexander Beyer) to shield his mother from the shock the Westernisation of Berlin would cause her.
The comedy rests on the serious lengths the earnest young Alex goes to in order to maintain the illusion that all is as it was. While the rest of the population is buying newly available Western products with frenzy, Alex searches street markets and junk piles for discarded clothing and pre-fall brands of groceries which have disappeared from supermarket shelves and for which, like her favourite brand of pickles, Christiane has a craving. The flood of West German deutschmarks into East Germany and the conversion of currency cause some extreme challenges and some heartbreak. Confined to her bed and her room, Alex and the others successfully hide from her the fact of Ariane’s new Burger King job (and uniform) and his own new job selling satellite TV connections, as well as what is happening outside the walls of their apartment. Soon her improving convalescence manifests as a thirst for news and a wish to watch television and listen to radio.
Meeting this challenge, Alex is aided by his friend Denis (played with engaging enthusiasm by Florian Lukas), a film-maker manqué, with ingenious bogus news footage on video-tape to document what is happening in an entirely fictitious German Democratic Republic, and continues for some months unsuspected by Christiane. Though the others are not as determined nor as convinced that he is doing the right thing with his elaborate deception, Alex is fashioning, through the sham newscasts, the kind of history he personally wishes had happened. Until one day, when he falls asleep from exhaustion by her bed, and she wanders outside in her night clothes to be confronted with bizarre sights for which she has no conceptual preparation: the most nightmarish of which is a giant statue of Lenin, hand courteously extended, being airlifted by helicopter above her. It is an irresistibly funny scene among many because of the multiplicity of viewpoints the director has allowed us to see.
The performances are without exception superb. Chulpan Khamatova as Lara, Alex’s love and Christiane’s nurse, is sweetly representative of the new, young, optimistic and cosmopolitan Germany, while Maria Simon as Alex’s sister Ariane is more abrasive and hungry for what the West can show them they have missed out on having. Burghart Klaussner as their long-lost father brings a poignant performance as a man whose life has been largely determined by impossible circumstances and choices. His unexpected reappearance in their lives exposes an old deception which neatly mirrors Alex’s deception of Christiane, ostensibly carried out for her good. Stefan Walz as the cosmonaut Jähn demonstrates that having been out of the world, and seen its smallness from the vastness of space, means it’s difficult to fit comfortably back into limited socio-political frameworks. Daniel Brühl as Alex and Katrin Sass as Christiane both give performances of great delicacy and depth.
The end of the film coincides with the celebratory fireworks of the reunification of Germany, along with a wondering, new understanding by Christiane of the love her children have returned to her. Director Wolfgang Becker has presented a heartening and convincing view of a family’s journey against the tumultuous backdrop of some of the most incredible political changes this world has seen. And some of the subtlest scenes, played dead pan and with earnest sincerity, are the funniest, making the whole deeply satisfying.
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