Dir. Wolfgang Becker, 2003
The film opens with young East German boy Alex watching grainy footage of his hero, the cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn, becoming the first German in space. At the exact same moment, his mother is being, comparatively gently by the standards of the time, interrogated by the secret police. This initial scene aptly summarises a work of exaggerated contrasts between fact and fiction, childhood and adulthood and, most importantly, the past and present.
The simple story revolves around a single lie: a die-hard communist mother (played with great restraint by Katerina Saß) is run over after seeing her son at a pro-Western demonstration, leaving her in a coma. The Berlin Wall falls while she’s in hospital, bringing her whole belief system crashing down with it. This means that, in order to protect her from relapsing, Alex must pretend nothing has happened and that it’s business as usual behind the Iron Curtain.
What follows is a sweet, funny and often bitterly sad meditation on the power of the past set against a soaring piano soundtrack by Amelie’s Yann Tiersen. In fact, its shockwaves have been so strong in Germany that it’s helped coin a new word, Ostalgie or “nostalgia for the East”. But it’s not all whimsical, clapped-out Trabant cars and shocking clothes, Becker’s film has a serious sting in its tale, which is especially writ large during the protagonist’s search for his estranged father on the other side of Berlin.
At the heart of the film is a career-best performance from the understated Daniel Brühl, whose ability to convey the deepest emotion with a mere shrug of the shoulders or raising of an eyebrow is unrivalled. The supporting cast, in particular the rambunctious Maria Simon and hilarious Florian Lukas, all have something individual to add – a rare feat.
If there is a slight (ever-so slight) bum note, it’s the sickly-sweet, cheesier-than-thou ending. But by that point you won’t be able to see through the streams of tears anyway. A quiet marvel.
Here’s the trailer:
WORDS: MAX FIGGETT