Working the Middle
Volker Schlöndorff’s Le Coup de Grâce, opens with a beautiful tracking shot. Two men and their horse, running side by side in helter-skelter motion across a shattered battlefield: all you see are their legs. Yet, the motion is held in a kind of stasis by the moving camera—it’s a sequence of motion and containment vying with each other, in uncomfortable equilibrium as cannon and guns fire in the distance.
The metaphor is particularly apt to the historical context of Schlöndorff’s film (an adaptation of Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel of the same title), which takes place in the Baltic region during the winter of 1919-1920. Tastefully released in DVD by The Criterion collection (featuring a new digital transfer and new and improved English translation), the film weaves its plot in the interstices, the transition zones.
It’s a middle-time for Europe, just after World War I and on the heels of the Russian Revolution, but before the merciless descent to Nazism of the late Weimar period in Germany. It’s also a middle-space, described by protagonist Erich von Llomond (Mathias Habich) as “that lost borderland of Eastern Europe, where Russian or German place names no longer meant anything.” This in-betweenness is also reflected at the level of ideology, as old-line Prussians and White Russians compete with new-school Bolshevics for domination in a seemingly interminable conflict.
It’s a perfect setting, really, for a story about impossible love. Sophie von Revel (Margarethe von Trotta), with her brother Konrad (Rudiger Kirschstein), is the heir of Kratovice, a decaying feudal manor near the Latvian city of Riga. The manor is “infected” by a Bolshevism that, in the words of one character, “by daylight hides in the woods” and “at night… comes to the villages to be fed by the inhabitants.” The very Teutonic Erich returns from Berlin with Konrad to defend the estate and Sophie falls in love with him, but he does not reciprocate. Instead, Erich has designs on Konrad, and Sophie, who has some sympathy for the Bolsheviks (distilled in the character of Grigori Loew [Franz Marak], a petit-bourgeois tailor and revolutionary), turns first to sexual excess with other men, and then to political radicalism, when she joins with the Communists.
This melodrama is delivered with a decidedly melancholy air, assisted by the black and white cinematography. Sophie seems to have no hope of escaping. Trapped amongst men (she’s the only female character of consequence) and their discourses (war, sexual power, politics), she’s consistently punished. Failing to inspire Erich’s interest, her moral “descent” and eventual decision to take up arms with against Erich and her brother, are not options so much as predestined avenues for failure.
Caught in the middle—“a woman’s face… surrounded by men’s faces,” as Schlöndorff notes in the interview included on Criterion’s DVD—Sophie is the perfect human embodiment of the middle world she inhabits. Like the Latvian landscape, she becomes a stage on which to enact a number of masculinist fantasies, and Schlöndorff, with clear intent and understanding, throws them at her by the handful: the damaged woman (raped by a soldier), the sexually promiscuous slut, the righteous female partner to the male radical (Grigori Loew), the noble victim of circumstance. And since Erich narrates in voiceover, even her own story is, in effect, out of her control. She’s a medium whose identity is the product of all these “male faces” (including the director’s) looking in at her—a reflection of the stories they inscribe on her.
The film itself is situated complexly with regard to all of this. Hardly affirming the treatment of Sophie, it nonetheless performs its own kind of representational violence. Since it’s a woman’s story told by a male narrator, Le Coup de Grâce unavoidably erases Sophie’s voice. Which is to say that it partakes in what it exposes on screen. It’s hard to imagine how it could do otherwise, in fact. Like those legs running in the initial tracking shot, the film is captured and constrained by its own structure, its own ideology.