In the film Goodbye Lenin (2004), color symbolizes Germany’s political reality and communicates it to the viewer. When the viewer first meets the grown up son, sleeping in his room, the bedroom windows are shrouded in red cloth that spreads red light throughout the room. This directly relates to communism and East Germany as a police state at that moment in the movie. The red light that permeates the room acts as a visual signal to the viewer that the son remains oppressed by communism, an ironic message considering that when East Germany merges with West Germany, the son is relieved of communism’s pressure institutionally, but domestically he must resume living as a communist subject to comfort his mother. Thus, the son’s bedroom curtains foreshadow the movie’s remaining exploration of the characters’ relation to communism, whether or not it is officially installed in the country’s government.
The color contrast between Germany’s communist and unified state is partly due to logistics and partly functions as a visual communicative device through which the director can inform the viewer that the film’s environment has changed. Logistically, East Germany was not allowed to import goods from other countries, meaning that if East Germany did not make its own Coca Cola, for instance, none would appear on supermarket shelves. This explains the color contrast between the first part of the film, in which East Germany is still a police state, and the second half, in which capitalist, commercial goods begin trickling across East Germany’s borders. The son’s experience shopping at the supermarket provides another example of the film employing color as a signifier of progress (or perhaps a more observational and less biased word is simply “change”). When the son wanders the supermarket aisle, searching for the German pickles his mother craves, the camera ensures that the viewer registers the drastic alteration of the supermarket’s appearance. Where shelves once stood sparsely stocked, the son now finds them brimming with imported food, including pickles from the Netherlands. The variety of colorful labels in front of the viewer’s eyes offers evidence of the notable, daily adjustments East Germans are experiencing – even a mundane activity like going to the supermarket rattles the son.
The Coca Cola sign similarly acts as a color-oriented marker of major shifts in the culture being documented and examined in the film. There is a dramatic clip in which four giant trucks drive by the camera with a whoosh while the camera, and therefore the viewer, stands at eye level. This ensures that the viewer internalizes the feeling of being dwarfed and insignificant among national and governmental shifts. But the red Coca Cola trucks themselves also embody this. When the trucks plow past the camera, the viewer is struck by their number (four Coca Cola trucks in a row is a lot of soda), but also alarmed by the adjustment their eyes must make to digest the bright, deep red in contrast with the grey, rainy, melancholy background. When the Coca Cola sign is hung outside the mother’s window, it divides the party into those who wish to uphold the ruse the son has constructed, and those like his girlfriend, who feel uncomfortable and “creepy” maintaining a pretend past. The red of the Coca Cola sign contrasts so sharply with the grey building from which it hangs that the viewer immediately senses that an element of the environment is awry – the red does not fit with the yellow and brown of the mother’s bedroom, so on a visceral level the viewer registers a problem. And of course there is a problem, because the sign would not have been allowed in the East Germany the mother believes she is recuperating in.
Goodbye Lenin uses color to convey alteration (mostly governmental rather than emotional or mental) to characters and viewers. Prime examples of this are the plethora of Coca Cola signs and labels that pervade the scenery in united Germany, along with the use of red to communicate communism’s continued hold on East Germany. It is interesting that the film uses Coca Cola to signify the defeat of communism, because Coca Cola red and the red the Communist Party employs are almost exactly the same shade (but there remains no room to discuss that here). Still, Goodbye Lenin explores Germany’s communist and unified states, using color to signal the shift.