The Legend of Rita (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Volker 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 Beirut. 

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.


Bibiana Beglau is seen topless in two lovemaking scenes, both relatively dark

Nadja Uhl is seen braless in a flimsy nightshirt. No see-through, but quite sexy.

Alexander Beyer does full-frontal nudity in three scenes (beach, bathtub, after-bath), and also exposes his bum.

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:

1. The state they sought to "destroy" is now many times more powerful.

2. The cause they sought to champion was destroyed, and they were ultimately to blame. All political struggles are a battle for the minds of the people in the center. Crazed leftists like the Baader-Meinhof gang convinced many centrists that the Left was morally bereft, and ultimately turned people in the center further Rightward.

3. Their own leaders disavowed their former actions.

4. The architects of their crumbling ideology disavowed it as a viable economic system. NOTE: to be fair, the die-hard socialists now fundamentally hold the position that it all would have worked out if not for Stalin. They still have not been able to grasp that a complete economic system requires the generation of wealth as well as its allocation. Even in an ideal world with no Stalin and no corruption, socialism provides no sensible theoretical mechanism to create wealth, so there is less and less to distribute as time goes on. I've often thought that socialists had some good and compassionate points about the distribution of wealth, but I'll be damned if I ever met one who understood how it was created in the first place.

5. With both their ideals and their methods renounced by both mainstream culture and their own leaders, it turned out that all of their terrorist acts were not in pursuit of a worthy cause. They simply killed people for nothing. 

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.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterboxed, 1.85:1

  • irritatingly poor quality DVD for such a significant film

  • Full-length director commentary

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. 

Tuna's Thoughts

As a quick recap of the story, young terrorists, inspired by early 70's Berkeley, where playing Robin Hood, robbing from the rich (like banks) and giving to the poor. To their socialist way of thinking, this redistribution of wealth was in the best interest of mankind. The fun went out of the game when they broke a friend out of jail, and ended up killing someone in the process. They escaped to East Berlin and the secret police, who had offered help. Most of the group chose to go to Beirut, to continue their campaign, but two young women went into a sort of witness protection program. The film is more a description of the times, the changing tide of politics, etc. Scoop, as a paid professional capitalist, covered that aspect in the review linked above. Nadja Uhl plays a close girlfriend of the main character, and is in a very clingy flannel nightshirt that doesn't stand a chance against her nipples. Bibiana Biglau shows a breast in a partly open shirt, breasts in two sex scenes, and buns stripping on the beach at night to meet her lover.

As Scoop said, this is an interesting, and highly intelligent film, where the ideas and ideologies are more important than the characters, so is not for everyone. It doesn't fail completely as entertainment, however, with action at the beginning, a lesbian relationship, and a hetero relationship. The German sub-titles can't be turned off. C+.

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.2 
  • With their dollars ... It's in German and it's not a commercial film to begin with. It did a miniscule $67,000 in the USA (IMDb's $670,000 is a misprint), never reaching more than three screens.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, I say C+ (Tuna agrees). Top notch fare of its type, but it's a sub-titled German movie of complex morality, and I don't see any crossover to mainstream audiences because there's simply nobody to identify with.

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