Friday March 16, 2001
Germany's political terrorist organizations of the '70s, director Volker Schlondorff reaches another high point in his career. This captivating saga, at once epic in scale and intimate in tone, draws upon Schlondorff's formidable storytelling skills and his special gifts in blending the political and the personal and in bringing a documentary-like immediacy to his narratives.
A splendid accomplishment in every aspect, it recalls most especially another Schlondorff milestone, "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum." In the 1975 film, an innocent young woman, because of an acquaintance with a person under police surveillance, finds herself identified with terrorists and hounded in the press.
As Rita, Bibiana Beglau also recalls "Lost Honor's" Angela Winkler in her angular beauty and strong performance. Rita is by far the most forceful presence in a gang of '70s revolutionaries who rob banks, shouting, "Down with capitalism!" and "Ownership is theft!" If Rita is the nerviest of her group, she is also the most reflective, and you can sense in her a growing feeling of futility in all their reckless guerrilla activities.
While returning from Beirut through East Berlin, Rita is caught transporting a pistol in her luggage, placing her in the thrall of Stasi officer Erwin Hull (Martin Wuttke). More terrorist misadventures ensue, both in West Berlin and Paris, and the gang winds up seeking asylum in East Germany via Hull, who tells them they will be expected to lead completely normal lives, separate from one another, as ordinary workers in a socialist state. This boring prospect has them opting to be sent to Beirut; to her friends' surprise, Rita decides to stay. It is in East Germany's interest to have terrorists from the West fall into their hands; by keeping a lid on them they can't keep stirring up bourgeois capitalists to ever-higher defenses against communism.
Having lived a hectic, high-risk existence that has made her one of the most wanted criminals in the world, Rita is ready to accept the order and calm life of a textile factory worker. Not at all blind to flaws in the communist system, she nevertheless responds to its idealistic aspects. She enjoys the camaraderie of the workplace, the idea of secure jobs and housing, no matter if they're menial or drab; she grows roots while some of her new friends dream of escaping to the West. But Rita leads a provisional existence, ever in danger of exposure and always subject to the control of Hull, a man of decency but one who is also expected to follow orders. Consequently, should Rita fall in love she can scarcely commit herself fully.
In collaboration with Schlondorff, distinguished East German veteran scenarist Wolfgang Kohlhaase, renowned for his work with director Konrad Wolf, has written a masterful script that is the very model for adroit character revelation and for sound construction, telling a story that ranges widely in locale and spans several tumultuous eras. The dialogue crackles with the irony, sometimes mordantly humorous, in regard to Rita's plight and fate, but it is never heavy-handed.
In Rita, we perceive by extension the contradictions and moral ambiguities of a Germany long divided only to be reunited with dizzying, cataclysmic speed. Beglau is the film's life force, but she is outstandingly supported by the complex and subtle Wuttke, and also, most notably, by Nadia Uhl and Alexander Beyer as the individuals with whom Rita becomes most closely involved in her new life in the East.
Schlondorff's films are marked by verve as well as scope, and here the pacing is impeccable. While they are always clearly the work of an intellectual, they have tremendous energy and visual panache, often, as in this film, possessing a lyrical quality. Schlondorff's cinematographers are invariably expressive in a dynamic, mobile but never flashy manner, and the gifted Andreas Hofer, from the former East Germany, is no exception. By the time "The Legend of Rita" takes its leave, it has primed us well to accept its tag line: "That's the way it was, more or less."
The Legend of Rita, 2001. Unrated. A Kino International release of a Babelsberg Film Produktion in association with Mitteldeutsches Filmkontor and MDR. Director Volker Schlondorff. Producers Arthur Hofer and Emmo Lempert. Screenplay Wolfgang Kohlhaase, in collaboration with Schlondorff. Cinematographer Andreas Hofer. Editor Peter Przygodda. Costumes Anne-Gfret Oehme. Art director Susanne Hopf. In German, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Bibiana Beglau as Rita. Martin Wuttke as Erwin Hull. Nadia Uhl as Tatjana. Alexander Beyer as Jochen.