Globalization and Terminal Illness in Goodbye Lenin! and The Barbarian Invasions

Daniel Lieberfeld


Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions and Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin! were internationally recognized as among the best films of 2003.  They share a concern with the decline and demise of dominant ideologies of the twentieth century in the face of globalization, and also use a remarkably similar plot device to convey this theme: a son’s efforts to ease the death of his idealistic and terminally ill parent. 

Good Bye Lenin! is most explicit in highlighting the demise of ideologies, from its title onward.  Alex, a young East Berliner, cares for his mother, Christiane, who entered a coma in late 1989 at the beginning of anti-government protests and recovered several months later, after the collapse of communism and German reunification.  "Mother slept through the relentless triumph of capitalism," Alex tells us.  She is thus oblivious to the transformation of her East Berlin world, and to the eradication of the socialist ideals she cherishes. 

Alex determines to keep his mother from learning the truth.  “It’s better this way,” Alex reflects, “Everything she believed in disappeared.”  Indeed, his mother’s coma followed a heart attack brought on by seeing the East German police brutalize Alex during a demonstration against the Communist system to which she has dedicated her life.  Christiane wakes, but given her vulnerable health, the shock of learning of the end of communism would prove fatal. 

In The Barbarian Invasions, Sébastien returns to Canada to visit his father, Rémy, a history professor whose cancer has been diagnosed as terminal.  Along with the friends who gather to say goodbye to him, Rémy looks back in amazement at the many ideologies the group took up and then abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s:  “Is there an ‘Ism’ we haven’t worshipped?” they ask, after ticking off existentialism, anti-colonialism, Marxism, Marxist-Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, structuralism, situationism, feminism, and deconstruction.  With age, the group has also grown more ambivalent about hedonism, the prioritization of personal happiness which was the subject of Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire (1986), to which The Barbarian Invasions is a sequel.

Sébastien’s fiancée, Gaëlle, who works for an art auction house, is invited by the Montreal archdiocese to view a warehouse full of disused votive sculpture and chalices.  “At one time everyone was a Catholic,” a church official explains.  “Then in 1966 the churches emptied out.”  Now the Church leaders want to know whether the dusty pieces have any value.  “Commercial value?” Gaëlle asks.  “Yes,” he replies sadly.  “Is there anything we can sell on the world market?”  Arcand excoriates the Church hierarchy for its moral failures, but is respectful of the Catholic nurse who ministers to Rémy with compassion and humility.

However, it is the ideology of the Enlightenment whose decline most concerns Arcand.  Rémy and his historian friends despair of the lack of intellectual life and disinterest in reading among their children and students.  To these academics, humanity seems on the verge of losing the intellectual heritage of ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, and the Revolutionary United States.  (“And now Philadelphia votes for Bush!” Rémy’s colleague exclaims—a factual inaccuracy that perhaps does not invalidate Arcand’s overall point.)  America’s founders were “the finest collection of minds every assembled in one place,” declares Pierre, Rémy’s fellow historian and bon vivant

As the incandescence of the Enlightenment dims to the flicker of the video screen, barbarism intrudes in the form of unfettered capitalism, the 9/11 attacks, and drug cartels.  In one of the film’s culminating scenes, Rémy, who has taken heroin as a painkiller, imagines barbarians destroying the manuscripts containing civilization’s intellectual heritage.  At this moment Sébastien emerges from some nearby shadows, the seeming embodiment of the barbaric threat.  Rémy’s children have escaped Montreal, a “backwater” of the global economy, and globalized themselves: Sébastien and his French fiancée live in London, and his sister delivers yachts from one continent to another.  When we first meet Sébastien he is at work in a pulsating office of commodities traders.  During his stay in Montreal Sébastien stays linked to the global market by cell phone and laptop.

Globalization appears in both films most ubiquitously through video images and advertising.  In Rémy’s hospital the patients and workers watch television constantly.  Of the few patients who still take Communion, one swallows his wafer while staring fixedly at a televised mini-golf tournament.  Sébastien is himself a devotee of video games and his sister sends her parting messages to Rémy from the middle of the ocean by video phone.  Globalization is also made manifest as global terrorism through video footage of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.   

Video images of the Berlin Wall’s collapse in Good Bye Lenin! evoke the impossibility of barricading the capitalist influx from the West.  Alex’s first use of freedom after the Wall falls is a trip to a video store in the West to watch his first porn film.  His buddy Denis, an aspiring video producer, concocts fake videotapes of communism’s triumphs that Alex can pass off as news broadcasts to his credulous mother.  Alex’s first job under capitalism is selling satellite dishes, which soon sprout all over Berlin’s apartment blocks, whose residents yearn for international soccer broadcasts.  Since boyhood, Alex has loved satellites and rockets, but outer space, along with virtually everything else, has been commercialized and Alex’s cosmonaut idol, a former socialist hero, now makes due by driving an earthbound taxi.  Commercialization renders quaintly anachronistic Christiane’s socialist ideals and her humane ethos. 

When Christiane accidentally sees an enormous red banner advertising Coca Cola on a nearby building, her illusion of communism’s continuity and progressive triumph is nearly disrupted.  (Besides Coca Cola, both films reference Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings supplier, itself emblematic of globalized domestic style.)  Alex tries to find Christiane’s favorite East German pickles but discovers that Berlin’s shiny post-Communist supermarkets carry only pickles from Holland, so Alex decants these into discarded jars of Communist vintage to preserve Christiane’s illusions.  Capitalism’s triumph renders worthless the East German currency that his mother saved.  Alex can only tear up his mother’s savings and watch the shreds float across the Berlin skyline, illuminated by the glowing displays of multinational banks.

Although governed by reactionary enemies of Enlightenment values, the U.S. still has high-tech medical treatment inaccessible through Canada’s system.  When Sébastien and Rémy arrive in Vermont, a nurse chirps, “Welcome to America, guys!”  “Hallelujah,” they reply caustically, “Praise the Lord!” Good Bye Lenin! likewise satirizes the witless conflation of God and capital with a character exclaiming “Hallelujah for the [Deutsch]mark!”   

Sébastien takes for granted the monetization of medical care and matter-of-factly handles the public hospital system’s corrupt bureaucrats and thuggish union officials, as if he were structuring yet another deal in Norwegian oil futures.  “This is not a Third-World country!” the hospital director insists, but her acceptance of Sébastien’s bribe makes clear that the distinction is overstated.  While Sébastien’s money procures a private suite for his father, those with fewer resources are laid out in gurneys along infernal hospital corridors, with year-long waits for cancer care and surgery, and frazzled doctors and nurses who can hardly distinguish one patient from another.  Canada’s national health care system, which Rémy voted for, seems in dire need of restructuring and will perhaps face privatization.  Both films show doctors leaving their countries for more lucrative jobs in the U.S. and in the West, while in the post-reunification East Berlin of Good Bye Lenin!, those too old to change are left to scrounge for survival amidst depressed living standards. 

By contrast with their video-age offspring, the parents in the films are teachers, self-consciously imbued with a system of values that they, in turn, attempt to pass on to their students.  Despite cavalier treatment by the university bureaucracy and his own “illiterate” students, Rémy remains committed to intellectual inquiry.  Nor is Christiane, a primary school teacher, disillusioned by her shabby treatment at the hands of her principal, who concludes that “her idealism was problematic in the daily running of the school.” 

While the sons, Alex and Sébastien, adapt to the world of globalized capital, their parents cannot, and their deaths at the end of each film echo the end of the ideological eras they represent.  Yet Alex and Sébastien recognize that their parents’ outmoded ideals sustain them, and each son purposefully insulates his parent from the sort of disillusion that, at least in Christiane’s case, might be fatal.  The heart of these efforts is an identical gesture that each son performs for his parent’s sake:  Alex and Sébastien each bribe a group of their parent’s former students to make a bedside show of concern and gratitude that seems to justify the parent’s efforts and ideals.  “Everyone wonders how you are,” the students lie to Rémy, before surreptitiously collecting the fee with which Sébastien has enticed them to visit the hospital.  (“At this price we’ll come anytime!”)  At a flea market, Alex finds some cast-off uniforms of the Young Pioneers, East Germany’s socialist version of the Boy Scouts, and pays a pair of boys to wear them while serenading his mother with nearly forgotten inspirational songs. 

Besides meretricious students, each son recruits friends and former  colleagues to assuage his dying parent’s sense of isolation and futility.  In each case, filial obligation and affection motivate the son to go to fantastic lengths to comfort the parent.  When Christiane unexpectedly wanders out of the apartment in which Alex has isolated her and becomes confused by signs that the border with the West has disappeared, Alex has Denis fabricate a news broadcast “explaining” that with capitalism’s collapse, East Germany has removed the Wall so that anti-materialist West Berliners can finally escape to the classless and prosperous East.

Despite their lack of ideological, historical, or cultural consciousness, the children are nonetheless impressively self-reliant, a quality attributed to their parents’ prioritization of ideology over child-raising:  After Alex’s mother chose not to follow her husband when he defected to the West, she retreated into silence and then, “married herself to the Party.”  Rémy’s infidelities and broken marriage have made his children paragons of self-reliance.  While rejecting their parents’ ideals, Alex and Sébastien and a few of their peers have, somehow, inherited humane values from them.  In The Barbarian Invasions, one of the students whom Sébastien bribes refuses to take the money.  At the end of the film the daughter of one of Rémy’s friends moves into the house where Rémy worked, and Arcand suggests that she will read her way through his library, and its inquiries into human nature by Primo Levi, Solzhenitsyn, Pepys, and other unblinking humanists.  Rémy, their ardent admirer, aware of his own failings, remains committed to ideals of truth-seeking:  “I haven’t found a meaning,” he says as he faces death.  “I have to keep on searching.”

Intellectual integrity cannot be monetized; indeed it lacks, or surpasses, commercial value.  By contrast, New Age versions of eastern religions are part of the commercial tide (“Your body’s in your head,” a colleague’s celebrity-fixated trophy wife advises Rémy).  The Barbarian Invasions leaves us with this, and with nature, to value.  “I’d like to see the lake,” Rémy requests, and finally derives a measure of tranquility there amid Arcand’s austere panoramas of open sky, migrating birds, and boreal forest.  More than any ideology, even liberal humanism, this is what endures and what Arcand upholds at the end.  In the scene at the country dacha, Good Bye Lenin! also shows us nature as a refuge from the freneticism and transience of commercial transactions and other human activity.  At the end of the films, Christiane and Rémy die peacefully with their sons and ex-spouses nearby.

Why did these thematically kindred films emerge where and when they did?  Even as the global marketplace pervades and transforms their societies, Quebec and the former East Germany, situated on the geographic and cultural margins of the globalizing West, near to and yet not wholly of it, seek to define themselves in opposition to global capitalism.  This marginal position of these societies is reflected in the ideological ambivalence of the two films: their disappointment in socialism in practice, and disdain for the materialism, amorality, and loss of meaning imported with globalization.  Good Bye Lenin! and The Barbarian Invasions record the passing of ideological allegiances and illusions.  They attempt to fathom the effects of globalization’s  inexorable intensification and whether individuals’ efforts to uphold humane values, and to create a better quality of life and death for those they care about, may yet mitigate the destructive powers of the market.

Daniel Lieberfeld is Assistant Professor at Duquesne University’s Center for Social and Public Policy.  He is the author of Talking With the Enemy (Praeger) and of articles on cultural politics in Film Quarterly, The American Scholar, African-American Review, and other journals.