The Legend of Rita (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
Schlöndorff, director of The Tin Drum, The Ogre, and The Lost Honor
of Katharina Blum, continues to make interesting and intelligent films
about Germany in the 20th century. This time he's concentrating
on the period between 1968 and 1987, the last twenty years of the Cold
War, in which divided Germany was the microcosm for the end of the
struggle between socialism and capitalism.
The Legend of Rita, or "Die Stille nach dem Schuß", was based upon an interesting theoretical question. There were 11 West German terrorists who were sheltered for years by the GDR (East Germany). When the wall came down, the West was in charge, and demanded to know where the terrorists were. East Germany, no longer in existence and suddenly simply part of the German apparatus, had no choice but to turn over one day the eleven whose identity it had been scrupulously protecting the previous day. Schlöndorff and his scriptwriter simply asked themselves what the lives of those people must have been like. They were not important communist officials or influential thinkers. They were simply eleven average people whose identities had been changed, and who were living mundane lives in the working class. Some had families. Their closest relatives and friends had no idea that they used to be terrorists.
To answer this question, they chose to focus on one fictitious woman, Rita Vogt, whose radical days apparently began with the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a group of German terrorists who envisioned themselves as a 20th century James Gang, robbing banks to strike a blow against exploitative institutions and in favor of the common man. At one point, they all fled to East Germany, which sheltered them. After a brief stay, the East Germans offered them a choice of plane tickets to the radical venue of their choice, or a new identity in the working class of the East German worker's paradise.
|Rita was not much on
killing and bank robbing, but she was a true believer in the socialist
cause, so she and one other woman chose new identities while their
brothers and sisters went on to resume their life of terrorism in
The new identity turned out to be rather unconvincing. East Germans were not as isolated as some Communist states, and were quite aware of what life was like in the west, so when Rita claimed she left her life in Western Europe for a chance to join the worker's paradise and rip her hands apart in a textile mill, her co-workers laughed in her face, although she was such a true believer that it all seemed perfectly plausible to her. Pretty much nobody believed that story. "We can only assume you are insane", was the mainstream response, and the complete illogic of her cover story eventually led her secret to be compromised.
|Her second try at a
secret identity also had some rough stretches in the credibility
department. In my favorite scene in the film, she walked into her new
assignment as a lifeguard in a children's summer camp by presenting
her various Communist credentials. Her boss, a more practical man,
listened to her politely, then looked at her with a straight face and
asked "can you swim?".
Despite various setbacks and the negative attitudes surrounding her, she often seemed to be bathed in bliss because of her role in socialist heaven.
Unfortunately, the Berlin Wall fell, Germany reunited, and she was no longer a "legend" sheltered by an outlaw state, but an outlaw herself. When Germany united, many of the people with police and administrative functions in the East had to continue to provide the same functions, although under a new rule of law. So it came to pass that the man who had been in charge of sheltering her identity was the same man who was assigned the task of bringing her in.
The film could easily have passed a severe judgment on the 1970's radicals. With the exception of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, those terrorists probably turned out to be about as wrong as anyone has ever been in the history of humanity:
In a very touching scene, the great French film, Grand Illusion, makes the point that the only thing war is good for is making people's tables too large. In that scene, a German woman helps a Frenchman and a Jew to escape German soldiers because she has a kitchen table that was built for eight people, and a bed meant for two, and there is nobody left in her family but her and her young daughter. The company of the strangers is more precious to her than her patriotism, which cost her a husband and several brothers. Similarly, the European socialist radicals of my generation ultimately served no purpose in our existence other than to make several tables too large for their households.
|The film avoids passing too harsh a
judgment on the radicals, however, because it's not about that. Rita even grieves when the most
murderous ones are slain, because they were her companions, and they
once shared her youthful ideals. The film is really about how social
movements displace individuals, and what might be left of an idealist
when she is abandoned by the very system she idealized. Rita seems
like a genuinely good person. She did some bad things, but she
genuinely believed that she was doing humanity's work by doing
socialism's work, and she was genuinely shattered when the worker's
paradise became part of the West, not just because of her personal
fears, but because she feared what those under socialism would lose.
Complex movie, intelligent without losing our interest in the storyline.
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