Little ‘Lenin!’ gives biz big boost

Low-budget laffer nabs 6 German Film prize noms

BERLIN — A tiny Teutonic pic is quietly upstaging Hollywood blockbusters and goosing local filmmakers.

The bittersweet comedy — about an ailing East German woman who slips into a coma on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall — has also sparked a nationwide debate about the lingering divide between East and West Germans.

“Good Bye, Lenin!” has so far sold 5.1 million tickets since its mid-February release, holding on to the top of Germany’s box office for more than a month.

It has already grossed upward of $35.5 million, a handsome return on its $5.5 million production budget.

Pic snagged six German film prize noms last week as well as the prize for best European film at the Berlin Film Fest in February and subsequently sold to 21 territories. No distrib has yet signed on the dotted line for the States.

Stefan Arndt, a co-founder of production company X-Filme, predicts the pic will surpass the performance of the company’s 1999 hit, “Run Lola Run.”

In the “Lenin!” pic, a character played by East German actress Katrin Sass, whose own career nosedived after reunification, wakes up from a coma eight months after the Berlin Wall falls. Her devoted teenage son, played by Alex Bruehl, is told by doctors she must stay in bed and avoid any excitement that could send her, a loyal Communist, back into a coma or even kill her.

So Bruehl painstakingly re-creates a small slice of Communist East Germany in the apartment, removing all signs of the Western capitalism that overran the East after the wall fell in late 1989. He scours the city to find her beloved East German pickles and tasteless coffee and jam; he even enlists a friend to create fake East German news broadcasts.

“It took the U.S. years before audiences were ready for films that looked at Vietnam, and I think a similar thing has happened in Germany,” Arndt tells Variety.

Harald Pauli, a critic for Focus magazine, says “Good Bye, Lenin!” has touched a nerve in both East and West Germany. It’s the biggest local hit since “Manitou’s Shoe” in 2001 and could lead other filmmakers to explore recent German history.

“I don’t think anyone dreamed it would succeed as spectacularly as this,” Pauli adds. “It shows Germans can laugh at themselves. And it also shows the industry, despite all the recent troubles, is still in pretty good shape.”

The local industry has been in the doldrums since the demise of the Kirch media empire, the stock markets slumped and unemployment grew.

” ‘Good Bye, Lenin!’ is good for the film industry here, and it’s a sign of vitality for the market,” says Jurgen Schau, managing director of Columbia TriStar Germany. “It’s a smart way to re-examine the reunification era. Perhaps it’s broken the ice for more films in that direction, the two Germanys growing together.”

The pic has not only brought the country together in movie theaters, but it has also revived discussion about lingering differences between East and West in everything from mentality to wages.

“It’s brought Germans together,” says culture minister Christina Weiss, who recently hosted a special screening for 250 members of Parliament. ” ‘Good Bye, Lenin!’ proves that humor can’t be divided into East and West Germany.”

Weiss, who led efforts to get German legislators to raise federal film subsidies by some $21.8 million to $104.7 million in 2004, said commercial triumphs such as “Good Bye, Lenin!” showed Germans could compete with U.S. imports — Hollywood accounts for some 80% of the German market.

About a third of the film’s budget came from federal and state film board subsidies, which will now easily be reimbursed.

“There’s a new generation of German filmmakers with a much better chance to succeed than previous generations,” she says. “The conditions are improved, and they’re much more courageous now.”

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