Film

Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)

Daniel Mudie Cunningham

In Good Bye, Lenin! the world is awakened to new possibilities but Alex forces a social blindness on his mother.


Good Bye, Lenin!

Director: Wolfgang Becker
Cast: Daniel Brühl, Katrin Sass, Maria Simon, Chulpan Khamatova, Florian Lukas, Alexander Beyer
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2004-02-27 (Limited release)

It's 1989 and Germany is still a nation divided. After her husband leaves her for a better life in West Germany, Christiane (Katrin Sass) finds herself proudly "married to her socialist fatherland." In the days leading up to Germany's unification, Christiane suffers a heart attack after witnessing her son Alex (Daniel Brühl) marching in an anti-communist demonstration. Slipping into a coma, Christiane sleeps through the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the East with the West.

When she wakes eight months later, Capitalism has triumphed by saturating Germany with a globalized ethos. Even her family has embraced the West: Alex installs satellite TV dishes, and daughter Ariane (Maria Simon) is working for Burger King. During Christiane's big sleep, the drab familiarity of communist DDR had been replaced by garish brandscapes and new Westernized ideals of progress. Fearing his mother's fragile health will not survive Germany's unification, Alex re-furnishes the family apartment with the (now) kitschy communist aesthetic of the former DDR. So meticulous is Alex's fabrication that, upon returning home, Christiane happily remarks that nothing has changed.

In Good Bye, Lenin! the world is awakened to new possibilities but Alex forces a social blindness on his mother, believing she will survive if her politics can continue unchanged. If Christiane hadn't suffered a heart attack after witnessing Alex's oppositional politics in action, the collapse of the Berlin Wall would have sent her health packing anyway. And so, the fantasy of sleeping through major world-changing events offers numerous tragicomic possibilities. What if the same thing happened to a World Trade Center Employee? Would he wake up and go to work or would his loved ones protect him from history?

Initially Alex's charade presents few challenges. He installs a hidden VCR that plays back old news footage and empties new imported foods into jars found in the trash. When mom spies a Coca-Cola billboard from her window, Alex enlists budding filmmaker Denis (Florian Lukas) to produce a farfetched news story -- complete with phony news anchor and video footage -- to explain its emergence. Alex becomes his own propaganda machine, spinning the kinds of lies that he once rallied against.

But Alex soon discovers that the trash heap of history is comprised of more than archival news footage and old pickle jars. The attitudes once forced upon the former DDR are changing fast, making it harder to locate people willing to perpetuate his regressive masquerade. On Christiane's birthday, Alex convinces some of her friends to join him in the lie. Even Alex's new girlfriend Lara (Chulpan Khamatova) plays along for a while. But when he starts inventing idealistic backstories for Lara and his sister's dopey boyfriend Rainer (Alexander Beyer), the lie spirals out of control, causing tension between Alex and those around him.

Alex's desire to help his mother at all costs makes the premise of Good Bye, Lenin! heartfelt and bittersweet. But the lie can only be sustained through the accumulation of others. After a while, it feels as if the plot exceeds its logical limits, becoming nonsensical despite its best melodramatic intentions. "I didn't want Good Bye Lenin! to be farcical," says director Wolfgang Becker on the film's official site. "Everyone feels differently about how far comedy -- in the best sense of the word -- can go, and the point when it tips over into slapstick and foolishness."

Becker certainly knows how to elicit finely tuned dramatic performances from his cast (Brühl, Sass, and Simon are standouts), but when it comes to comedy, the director takes the joke too far, relying on reductive slapstick tricks like fast motion. The most effective comic moments pay tribute to pop culture signs and corporate branding. A statue of Lenin hanging from a helicopter recalls La Dolce Vita, and a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey is recreated in one of Denis' homemade videos. Recurring Coca-Cola and Burger King trademarks wittily acknowledge how even digs at consumerism must inevitably grant it center stage.

The scene when Ariane begins her Burger King tenure is staged exactly like a cheesy TV commercial, in effect halting the narrative flow as if cinema intermission has been announced. In The Truman Show, Meryl (Laura Linney) similarly interrupts the diegesis to offer homemaking tips. If that movie satirizes our desire to be immersed in the global image stream, then Good Bye, Lenin! demonstrates how an effective critique of globalization depends on acknowledging its omnipresence, no matter our desire.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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