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February 18, 2000 2:00 AM
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BERLIN 2000 REVIEW: East Meets West in Schlondorff's Satisfying "Rita"

BERLIN 2000 REVIEW: East Meets West in Schlondorff's Satisfying "Rita"


by Eddie Cockrell




(indieWIRE/2.18.2000) -- When the Berlin wall came down a decade ago, it was assumed that the
flood of people who poured into the west were grateful to escape the
tyrannical blandness of their forced socialist existences. In the
triumphant new film "The Legends of Rita" -- German director Volker
Schlondorff
's best work since "The Tin Drum" won Cannes' Palme d'Or and the Best Foreign Language Oscar more than two decades ago -- the reality
is much different, as the consequences of history and choice reveal that
perfectly normal lives were in fact shattered.

In the early 1970's, seduced as much by love as politics, 21-year-old
Rita Vogt (Bibiana Beglau) becomes a terrorist, operating with a ragtag
cell who commit bank heists and a disastrous prison break that leaves
numerous dead bodies in its wake. Yet despite the bloodshed, the group
isn't inclined towards violence, favoring the power of slogans such as
"Down with capitalism" and "Ownership is theft."

Traveling back from Beirut, Rita is detained for having a pistol in her
luggage and meets Erwin Hull (Martin Wuttke), an officer in the feared
East German Stasi security network. Impulsively killing a Paris
policeman, Rita eludes capture and approaches the Stasi for asylum in a
third world country. Hull declines, offering only to arrange new
identities, or "legends," for Rita and her colleagues in East Germany.
While they opt for a risky future in the West, Rita decides to see how
the other half lives and becomes Susanne Schmidt, textile factory worker
in the East.

To this point the film has been a thriller, nervous yet finely balanced.
Now, much to her surprise, Susanne/Rita grows to embrace the security of
her new life as a useful citizen. Soon she meets troubled, divorced
co-worker Tatanja, who yearns to break free of the restrictions imposed
by the state and the demons in her head -- but can only get as far as
the next bottle of vodka. They grow close, but are abruptly separated
when a hostile co-worker recognizes the fugitive.

With Hull's help, Rita becomes Sabine Walter, a childcare coordinator
for a large company. While on a field trip to the Baltic Sea during one
fine summer -- the summer of 1989, to be exact, just prior to the fall
of the wall ? she meets and falls in love with Jochen (Alexander Beyer).
But as the East German state begins to disappear, Sabine/Susanne/Rita
discovers that the Stasi can no longer protect her, and the happiness
that was so close to her, in fact, had a statute of limitations.

Cultural dislocation is a theme that has been conspicuous this year in
Berlin both by location and content: one is constantly reminded that the
main Potsdamer Platz theater sits directly on the no-man's land that
formerly separated the east from the west (where "Wings of Desire" was
shot), and at least one other film, the absorbing hockey-themed
documentary "Home Game" ("Heimspiel") reveals the deep mistrust and
animosity that still exists between some residents of the formerly
divided city.

Yet by placing these serious sociopolitical issues in a
sensationalist-fictional context and infusing the story with sly humor,
Schlondorff and Wolfgang Kolhaase, a prolific screenwriter from the
former East Germany whose work includes "Solo Sunny" (1980), have made
something unique: think of German Bonnie, separated from her Clyde, then
finding love and happiness as a member of the East German working class.
It's tense, audacious and illuminating.

Although this story is fiction, the concept of the revolutionaries is
based very loosely on the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang and their
terrorist activities in Germany and Europe in the late 1960s and early
1970's. When the wall fell, the ex-members of the organization who had
built new lives for themselves in the east were arrested. Another German
director, Reinhard Hauff, has addressed this subject in at least two
films, 1986's "Stammheim" (which won a hotly disputed Golden Bear) and
in a more humorous vein, the less well-known "Man on the Wall" (1982),
which posits a lovesick German able to visit women in both East and West
Germany.

Visually, "The Legends of Rita" has the same cold, hard look as
Schlondorff's 1975 success, the political thriller "The Lost Honor of
Katharina Blum" (co-directed with wife Margarethe von Trotta) and
actress Beglau bears a resemblance to that film's star, Angela Winkler,
suggesting a strong link to the period. Yet from the safe distance of
time, Susanne Hopf's production design has an odd nostalgic whimsy to
it, as if to say "did people really live like this?" (Many still do, and
quite happily). The irony of meticulously recreating a life once thought
so prevalent couldn't have been lost on the filmmakers, who have done a
spectacular job of visualizing an era that is at once so recent and so
out-of-date.

Similarly, they sustain a tone throughout the film that allows elements
of thriller and even comedy to co-exist. Along with the inevitable digs
at the philosophical absurdities of socialism and the Stasi (which is
never mentioned by name), the inspired choice to make close friends of
two women who yearn for the exact opposite lifestyle has a ripple effect
that contextualizes the early violence and places it firmly in the
sphere of what one German newspaper called "absurdist crime drama."
These are hot-button issues in this part of the world to be sure, but
the combination of Schlondorff's interest in the minutiae of the East
and Kohlhaase's fascination with the actions of the west allows the film
to exist on multiple levels and explore each of them in full.

Purposely cast with unknowns, the performances reflect the everyman feel
the filmmakers were after. Beglau carries the picture, giving a
workmanlike but finely calibrated performance that never distracts from
the big picture. Similarly, Hull is at once officious and sympathetic as
the security officer.

Schlondorff spent the last ten years in the former East of Berlin,
managing the Babelsberg Studios to financial security and success (not
surprisingly, this film was shot at that facility). He has spoken of his
experiences during the decade as critical to understanding the
atmosphere there, a knowledge that comes through in the film, even to
viewers unfamiliar with these subtleties.

The original German title is "Die stille nach dem Schuss," literally
"The Silence After Death," and an alternate English title, "Rita's
Legends," has also been seen on some press material. Under any name,
"The Legends of Rita" is among the most risk-taking and satisfying films
in this year's Berlinale.

[Eddie Cockrell is a Maryland-based film critic and consulting
programmer whose work also appears regularly in Variety and
nitrateonline.com.]

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