The Legends of Rita
a.k.a. Die Stille nach dem Schuß
The Legends of Rita

German language. Germany, 2000. Unrated. 110 minutes.

Cast: Bibiane Beglau, Martin Wuttke, Nadja Uhl, Harald Schrott, Alexander Byer, Jenny Schilly, Mario Irrek
Writers: Volker Schlöndorff, Wolfgang Kohlhaase

Cinematographer: Andreas Höfer

Producers: Arthur Hofer, Emmo Lempert, Friedrich-Carl Wachs

Director: Volker Schlöndorff


Grade: B Review by Jeff Vorndam

Volker Schlöndorff is probably most recognized in the U.S. for his surreal adaptation of The Tin Drum. That film abstracted a mindscape of the German people from the heady and terrible times of the Nazi regime. In The Legends of Rita, Schlöndorff takes his focus to the 1980s and East Germany in a film that is more straightforward and accessible than its metaphor-laden predecessor. One can enjoy The Legends of Rita simply at the surface level as a story of a terrorist attempting to find a normal life. This is fortunate because the film is heavily fraught with politics, not all of which translate across national boundaries. It examines a recent sore spot in Germany's history and ambiguously refuses to side with either the East or the West, preferring to show and not tell.

Rita Vogt (Bibiane Beglau) is a terrorist. Though it's not specifically mentioned in the movie, she and her cohorts are based on the Red Army Faction (RAF), a student anarchist group responsible for a series of bank robberies and assassinations in West Germany during the 1970s. Terrorists define themselves by their ideology; they are not people but representations of ideas. Everyone in the group speaks in the rhetoric of a zealot–personal feelings and small-talk have no place in their lives, which are bent toward The Cause. Rita is an exception. She admits that she only became involved because she fell in love with Andi (Harald Schrott), the group leader. Bibiane Beglau

As terrorists, the group is constantly on the run from the law. After a bank robbery (during which they take time to admonish bank patrons for their capitalist pig-dog lives), the gang executes a daring midday prison break for a comrade, killing a guard in the process. Rita and the others seek asylum in France. En route, Rita has a curious encounter at the East German border with a Stasi officer who purposely doesn't arrest her for carrying a concealed weapon through customs, and reminds her that he can be a useful ally if she's ever in trouble.

The gang reassembles in Paris and they begin to flounder, wondering if their actions have had any effect and if they're losing sight of the cause. One day, Rita is riding on her motorbike with her comrade Friederike (Jenny Schilly) when they are stopped by a traffic cop and asked for identification. Fearing arrest, Rita bolts and drops Friederike off before hiding out in a parking garage. The cop tracks Rita down, and she shoots and kills the officer. Now that heat is bearing down on the group, Rita cashes in on the favor offered by the Stasi officer, Erwin (Martin Wuttke). Erwin devises a new life and identity for Rita, a new "legend," he calls it. If Rita wants to avoid capture (and likely execution) she must accept a normal working-class life in East Germany. The male members of the group decide not accept this proposal and take off for Beirut, but Rita and Friederike agree.

Rita winds up working a humdrum job at a factory, and it is here that the film's themes begin to take shape. Still retaining her Marxist idealism, she is surprised to learn that her co-workers are cynical and regard Socialism as oppressive, corrupt, and ineffective. When she contributes money to a fund for worker solidarity in Nicaragua, she is astonished by her co-workers' reproach that she's throwing her money away and being naive in thinking the contribution will actually reach the hands of the workers themselves. One of her co-workers' disillusionment goes beyond indifference and into self-destructive alcoholism. She is Tatjana (Nadja Uhl), and her defiance is the only sign of life in the plodding existence of these East German workers. She and Rita become close friends, and the wonderful performances of both Bibiane Beglau and Nadja Uhl elevate these scenes above what potentially could have been an arduous retread of Leaving Las Vegas or The Dreamlife of Angels. Like the angels of Zonca's film, Rita and Tatjana are temperamentally different, and yet drawn to each other. Rita is the optimistic one, who feels that Socialism is better than Capitalism because no one lacks–it's better for all to have modest means than for some to be rich and others poor. Tatjana finds the absence of social mobility stifling and unrewarding to action. Why work if there's no gain to it?

Eventually Rita's cover is blown and she must assume a new "legend." It's best not to reveal any more of the story at this point, save to say that Rita's life begins to mirror what it's like to live in a police state. Her every move is followed and all her contacts are monitored. Her freedom is an illusion, and she finds a noose tightening about her.

Legends of Rita drew criticism in Germany for not demonizing its East German antagonists. Erwin Hull is a well-rounded character–a bureaucrat who isn't quite in control of the puppet strings that his government has applied to Rita and her friends. It's not apparent until late in the film how the East German government has leveraged these wanted terrorists against the West for future deal-brokering. Erwin was unaware of these ploys and, as perfectly played by Martin Wuttke, his conflict between duty and morality adds another layer of meaning to the film. Legends of Rita ends on a note of inevitability, an all too foreseeable outcome for one whose idealism finds no refuge between the Scylla of socially careless Capitalism and the Charybdis of life-controlling Socialism.

Review © June 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 Babelsberg Films. All Rights Reserved.

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