Saturday, February 07, 2009

Good Bye Lenin!

Part 1: A few words on “high concept” (or: The Tao of Don and Jerry)

My son, would you be a writer on film?

Father, I would aspire to the status of a blogger. Also, a paying gig with ‘Sight and Sound’ would be good.

My son, do you consider yourself well-versed in film?

Father, my tastes in film are diverse, eclectic and wide-ranging.

My son, do you know what a ‘tautology’ is?

No, father.

Evidently … My son, are you a keen viewer of mainstream fare?

Father, I … I have seen ‘Transformers’.

I will hear your confession later –

But father, I only went to see it for Megan Fox who I believe to be a talented up-and-coming young actress and –

I said I will hear your confession later. For now, my son, can you explain the term “high concept”?

Yes, father. “High concept” is when a film has one single idea; usually an idea that can be expressed so succinctly that it serves as a pitch, a plot synopsis and a marketing campaign all rolled into one.

My son, whose films exemplify this most explicitly?

Those of Messrs Si—

My son, do you know what a lawsuit is?

Yes, father.

Then stick with first names only.

Yes, father. The films of, ahem, Don and Jerry are perfect exemplars of “high concept”.

My son, can you cite an example?

A street-talkin’ black cop from Detroit finds himself partnering a buttoned-down white cop in Beverley Hills in a culture-clash comedy thriller.

My son, is “high concept” a predominantly Hollywood phenomenon?

Not necessarily, father. European films can also be “high concept”.

And being European, are they generally better?

I believe so, father.

Can you cite an example?

Yes, father, I can …

Part 2: … and here’s how the Germans do “high concept”

It’s the late ’80s and Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika are moving inexorably towards the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of a four-decades’ divided city. But not in the utilitarian apartment of staunch socialist Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass). Since the departure to the West of her husband, the Party has been her life; her loyalty is unswervable.

Her children, already under the influence of Western culture, don’t toe the line quite so enthusiastically. In fact, her son Alex (Daniel Brühl), doesn’t toe the line at all. “On the evening of October 7 1989,” Alex explains in voiceover, “several hundred people got together for some evening exercise and marched for the right to go for walks without the Berlin Wall getting in their way.”

Naturally, the authorities intrude upon said perambulations. Naturally, there’s a clash. Alex scuffles with a cop before a truncheon to the midriff and a ride in a police van effectively curtail his involvement. Unfortunately Christiane, on her way to a Party function where she’s to be honoured for her work, witnesses this and the shock proves too much for her. She collapses of a heart attack.

Released from his holding cell on the basis of his mother’s good standing and her current hospitalisation, Alex visits Christiane only to find her in a coma. Eight months later, she wakes up with no recollection as to the circumstances that engineered her heart attack. Her doctor warns Alex and his free-living sister Ariane (Maria Simon) that any further shock to the system could kill her.

Such as: Ariane having redecorated the apartment and moved her new boyfriend in. Such as: Ariane having quit her studies and taken a job at Burger King. Such as: there actually being a Burger King in East Berlin thanks to the Wall having been pulled down, reunification underway, a fiscal changeover from old currency to Deutschmarks in progress, and signs of Westernization on every corner.

Those kind of shocks.

So Alex, aided by his friend and colleague Denis (Florian Lukas), a wannabe film-maker, hatches a plot to keep his mother in the dark. Step one: redecorate the apartment. Step two: scour Berlin for pre-reunification branded goods. Step three: initiate some of her friends and colleagues into the conspiracy in order to navigate a potentially awkward birthday party.

And for a while it all goes swimmingly. Until Christiane, bed-ridden, complains about the lack of entertainment and demands a TV in her room. Suddenly it’s not enough that Alex has concocted a time-capsule DDR within the four walls of his mother’s bedroom; now he has to get really creative. And when a “drink Coca-Cola” advert goes up on the wall of the high-rise opposite, that’s when his troubles really start …

‘Good Bye Lenin!’ – the title refers to an iconic shot of Lenin’s statue being helicoptered out of the city – is high concept meets high art … but it’s never artsy. It’s incredibly cleverly written and structured … but never comes across as clever-clever. In fact, the visual language of ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ – from speeded-up footage to edits designed for maximum comic effect to gleefully re-contextualised archive material (Alex and Denis’s videos pre-suppose the dime-store ingenuity of ‘Be Kind Rewind’) – is pure mainstream cinema.

All of which would make for a satirical slice of subtitled entertainment, except that director and co-writer Wolfgang Becker anchors his story with a beautifully understated emotional core. The finale is poignant and resonant; the metaphor is unforced: reunification, the family as a microcosm of the city.

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