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Folly of the Berlin wall

Special to The Times

It’s one of those wonderful German words that seem to define the undefinable -- two words stuck together to denote a malady, a kind of person or, in this case, a whole state of being. Lebensluge means, in effect, “the lie of your life.” It’s the lie that makes life livable, and Germans, with their rich philosophical tradition, believe that everyone has one. Americans might be more familiar with the term “denial.” Such lies sustain the lives of the characters in “Good Bye, Lenin!” says German director Wolfgang Becker, and no matter how well-intentioned, their prevarications can have boomerang consequences.

Last year his bittersweet comedy was a runaway box office hit in Germany. It won several awards, including the Blue Angel for best European film at the Berlin Film Festival, and proved that Germans, despite inventing the more familiar Sturm und Drang, do have a sense of humor. Yet with Becker, it’s comedy laced with tragedy, something for which his films are known.

“The way I experience life is not as a genre,” says Becker, 50, during a recent visit to Los Angeles. A large, grizzly man with a commanding air, he speaks English with a strong accent and some self-assurance. “My life is not always melodramatic, it’s not always tragic, it’s not always funny. It’s different emotions, sometimes overlaid.”

The absurd, the tragic, the funny and the poignant pile up in his film about Alex (Daniel Bruhl), a teenager growing up in East Berlin with his mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass), on the eve of German reunification. She staunchly believes in the Communist cause, while he’s more skeptical. One day, she spies Alex marching in an antigovernment rally and faints. While she’s in a coma, the Berlin Wall tumbles and the two Germanies merge. When she awakens, the doctor informs Alex that she will be bedridden and that any stress could kill her.

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Alex decides to turn back the clock, enlisting his sister in an elaborate scheme to re-create a pre-reunification world in their apartment. They move back drab old furniture, wear old clothes and play vintage German Democratic Republic programs on the TV. This naturally leads to some outrageous moments, such as when the mother spots a Coca-Cola sign unfurl on a building outside her window. Alex devises a TV “news” segment explaining that Coca-Cola was really invented in the GDR and “stolen” by the Americans, so it’s a good Socialist drink after all.

Born in Hemer, Germany, Becker went to Berlin to study, thinking he would become a teacher. It was 1974, and the Cold War was still brewing, although he fondly remembers visiting the East to use libraries and buy cheap books. But while he was a typical leftist student, he also recognized the Lebensluge of the GDR.

“I hated this GDR system because it was the complete perversion of the socialist idea,” he says. “Maybe they started off with good intentions, but what they called socialism was a rotten state, and consequently it found its end. We were all surprised it came so fast.”

In the lap of luxury

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What does he mean by rotten? “The economics was rotten, the morals were rotten,” he says. “People got so angry after the Wall came down. There were so many things they didn’t know. In the houses of party members, they had all this stuff from the West: They had VCRs, they were watching porno. They had been telling people the socialist society was the superior society -- ‘Give us a few more years.’ ”

Instead, they were living in the lap of capitalist luxury. While in school, Becker decided he didn’t wanted to be a teacher but to make films. So he applied to the German Film and Television Academy, where he happily played cameraman on many student projects.

“Everyone wanted to be a director,” he says. His own graduation film, “Butterflies,” took the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival. Becker went on to direct television as well as theatrical features.

“Good Bye, Lenin!” is his fourth film. It’s an unusual one, he admits, and came to him as an unsolicited, five-page treatment from an unknown, Bernd Lichtenberg. Becker read it, liked it and met with the budding scriptwriter. He made a number of suggestions, particularly cutting out a parallel story about a Turkish family, and later worked on the final draft himself. (In fact, he worked on the final draft and did a first reading with actors during a government-funded sojourn at Villa Aurora in Los Angeles in the fall of 2000.)

Since production funding was modest, the budget of $5 million was raised quickly. (When shooting went overtime, they were able to claim the additional cost through insurance.) Since he wanted authentic East German accents, he found his cast, including veteran Sass, among East German actors.

But he couldn’t find the right Alex, so he cast the net wider and found Bruhl, who is from West Germany. Becker saw in him what he couldn’t find in the other young actors he met, credibility. “When you see him, just look at his face,” he says. “You believe he’s doing all this because he has a special relationship to his mother.”

Becker is “very much a perfectionist,” says Bruhl by telephone from Florida, on a publicity tour supporting the film. “He was very sure about what he was doing; he had this master plan in his head all the time. At the same time, I felt very sure and very safe working with him.”

“For me the challenge was always to find the right tone. The absurdity of the story is quite huge, so the challenge was to be as convincing and natural as possible, and Wolfgang helped me a lot to find that.”

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When he was growing up, Bruhl’s image of East Germany was the evil empire, an image he now sees as “simplistic.” From his fellow actors and from working in East Berlin for “Good Bye, Lenin!” he knows that those who lived in the GDR might have enjoyed some security and comfort under the old regime.

In the film, Bruhl has to deliver a voice-over full of youthful irony. “Life in our little country kept getting faster. We were like tiny atoms in a huge particle accelerator,” Alex observes. Having bent reality to suit his purposes, he sums up the new reality: “I realized that truth was a rather dubious concept.”

Which brings us to the issue of Lebensluge.

“In some way everybody around the world has one,” says Becker. “You hardly can find anyone who doesn’t compensate for a major or minor problem in his life through a self-induced lie.” He notes that some people have this problem so severely they have split personalities.

A little white lie

In the film, we discover that Christiane has for years told a little lie about how her husband, Alex’s father, abandoned the family. A lie which perhaps she now believes. “This lie helped her to go on with her life,” says Becker. “It’s not like you want to be mean or to cheat other people. You need it, otherwise you can’t go on anymore.”

Admittedly, Alex is more calculating in his lie -- he goes to exorbitant lengths, pulling in increasing numbers of co-conspirators, to carry out his hoax that the GDR still exists. At first it’s altruistic, for the sake of his mother. “Alex starts with a little lie,” says Becker. “Then it gets bigger and bigger. Then he’s becoming more selfish. He starts manipulating his sister and his girlfriend. In some sense, he’s a little like the GDR. The GDR started out with good intentions and then started to change. Here, you can see in one person how that can happen.”


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