The story is of a couple with a young son and daughter in East Berlin during a time period spanning the fall of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1990. In the late 1970s, the father defects to the west without the rest of the family.
Fast forward twelve years. Son Alex (Daniel Brühl), now a young man, joins a demonstration for rights which is broken up by the Stasi; his mother (Katrin Saß), seeing him hauled off, collapses into a coma. During the eight months that she is out of it, the Berlin wall comes down. In a short time, everything changes for the easterners — food, clothing, furniture, buildings, occupations; Burger King and Coke arrive. Everything is totally different.
When the mother finally comes to, the doctors think she can only go home if there will be no shocks or surprises. Alex interprets this to mean he must conceal from her the entire national change that has occurred, and create a make-believe environment as if the GDR were still in power. The old-style furniture is brought back. The sister agrees to wear the horrid fashions of the GDR. Alex’ friend Denis (Florian Lukas) produces a series of false newscasts which Alex patches in to the mother’s TV by tape recorder.
All of this would have its charm and amusement, if also a bit overdone; but the metaphor for broader social questions is what makes the film fascinating: especially two themes.
1. Denis’ fake newscasts present the same visual images as the “mainstream media” — people running, the wall crumbling, cops swinging batons — but with exactly the opposite interpretations: the Westerners are trying to get into East Berlin. It reminds of the insight of van Til and others that all facts are interpreted facts, and brings this home vividly.
A parallel theme slowly trickles out: who is the real liar? Almost everyone is at one stage or another. Alex is about to spill the beans when the mother beats him to the punch with a different, but more devastating story.
2. Something as trivial as dill pickles becomes a symbol for the insight that a large change for the better can still cause the loss of some good things. The sight of the mother contentedly munching her pickles is one my favorite images. Now Alex can only find pickles imported from Holland; the locally produced ones are gone.
This is a real loss. It is similar to the disappearance of our agrarian life, with the replacement of fen and fields with Wal-marts. We should not always plaster this over by mindlessly chanting “capitalism good, communism bad,” like some kind of mantra; like the pigs in Animal Farm.
Of course communism was evil, even demonic. Yes, capitalism is better in some ways, in many ways, than that. But that doesn’t mean that criticism cannot also be lodged. We get the Big Mac, but we can’t find our favorite dill pickle any more. Let’s at least pause a moment.
Other nice features: The spaceship becomes a recurrent symbol for sudden transition, in a variety of clever ways. The two episodes of “speechlessness” and two of blind-folding of the mother are nice thematic coupling. Some of the photography is great: the mother in red in contrast to the nearly colorless mob at the freedom riot; and archival restoration that is quite astonishing. There are masterful special effects. The sister, Leipzigerin Maria Simon might not have the look that is fashionable at Cosmo, but she has a natural feminine attraction that does not need makeup, and a prettiness that I like very much. The music by French composer Yann Tiersen is in popular style, yet has a Germanic contrapuntal quality to it that is almost classical. There are some very funny scenes, and some touching ones that still avoid becoming mawkish.
The film could have stood more ruthless editing. There are time-consuming scenes that don’t really add anything, like Lara’s apartment. There is a needless flash of male nudity, for no purpose. The tangent with the stashed money was at least for me unassimilated into any important theme. The mockery of the stilted Burger King greeting: “Guten Appetit, und vielen Dank daß Sie für Burger King entschieden haben” makes a point about the ungenuineness of much of the manufactured friendliness of capitalism, but repeating it four times throughout the movie goes too far. The complete absence of religion either pro or con is inhuman.
I commend this film for those that can tolerate sub-titles or German. Even with its defects, it is so much more intelligent than 99% of what Hollywood dishes up. Director Wolfgang Becker does a commentary track that is worthwhile. The actors’ commentary is not: Saß and Brühl are fine actors, but, just like here, I fear, better at rendering lines than an opinion.