Volker Schlondorff’s newest film ends with a fatal motorcycle crash and these words: “That’s exactly how it was. More or less.” The declaration at once provides uneasy closure for the histories of Rita (Bibiana Beglau), the film’s central character and moral pivot, reaffirms its avoidance of the definite and the concrete, and encourages scrutiny and debate when considering the hard facts of history.
With The Legends of Rita, Volker Schlondorff returns to the preoccupations of his (and former wife/co-director Margarethe von Trotta’s) films of the mid-1970s, most notably The Lost Honour of Katerina Blum, Marianne & Julianne, and the multi-directed composite of shorts, Germany in Autumn. These films were nearly incomprehensible without a knowledgeable, sympathetic identification with the student and worker uprisings that proliferated throughout Europe in 1968, and which spawned radical movements and separatist guerrilla factions—most notably, Britain’s Angry Brigade and West Germany’s Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhof gang, whose infamy and influence lasted into the late 1970s and beyond. During this period, art and politics mixed, the New German Cinema in particular producing films that combined the personal and the political, focused on the individual’s choices to engage in, battle against, or withdraw from a society in turmoil.
The Legends of Rita
Bibiana Beglau, Martin Wuttke, Nadja Uhl
Things are different now. Rita, Schlondorff’s newest revolutionary, inhabits a world where the concerns of the ‘70s are no longer immediate or fashionable, and extreme leftist ideals have been abandoned as retrograde. Radical politics and radical heroines are now objects of nostalgia, hot chicks in bellbottoms spouting political rhetoric that sounds like bumper stickers. Granted, movie characters still rebel, yet it has become more and more difficult to connect cinematic rebellions to the world outside the movie theater, and likewise, harder to project meaningful political and cultural critique onto these characters and their stories.
Rita resists this trend, in part because she’s a composite of fictional and non-fictional elements. Schlondorff borrows generously from the stories of the Baader-Meinhof gang and the female players central to that terrorist cell’s success, all the while embellishing their traits and reconfiguring events to the point where historical accuracy becomes a non-issue. As the film progresses, Rita evolves from budding revolutionary to most-wanted terrorist to woman disguised according to the various “legends” (East German spy-speak for false identities) created for her by those willing to shelter her.
The film opens onto a roughly edited bank robbery. Rita and several cohorts run through a West Berlin bank, passing guns to each other, holding bystanders at gun point, all the while joyfully yelling slogans—“Ownership is theft!”, “Down with capitalism!”, “We’re nationalizing finance!” Naturally, their flashy techniques and dogmatic principles are noticed by the East German authorities and while en route to West Berlin from a barely detailed trip to Beirut, Rita is stopped and interrogated by Erwin (Martin Wuttke), a member of the Stasi. From the Stasi standpoint, the two factions have quite a lot to give each other; specifically, the Stasi sees in Rita and her unnamed group a potential for eyes and arms in the West, and the group seeks shelter in the East.
Within minutes of the raucous introduction, several members of Rita’s gang are imprisoned and a “successful” escape—only one guard is killed—is accomplished. With the Stasi’s help, the gang flees to Paris and would appear to stay there for several years (time is here measured by hair styles). These events move by rather quickly: narrative logic and chronology fade into the background as Rita begins to occupy the foreground. The faction’s activities and the historical events they echo become of secondary importance to the film’s trajectory, serving as a politically charged backdrop to the characterization of Rita herself. She is the film’s center and it is through her Stasi-orchestrated multiple identities and nomadic movement that the film takes its shape.
Through the cursory moments depicting the band’s terrorism and their burgeoning relationship with the Stasi, the promised asylum east of the Berlin Wall emerges. For Rita, life in a socialist state promises the actualization of their political ideals, for there is a freedom to be found in the all-encompassing embrace of the State, a liberty contained in the purposeful denial of capitalist models and its concurrent commitment to socialism. But with asylum also comes a false identity and a new life devoted to hiding and secrecy: she is given a new name and personal history—a legend—and must forever forfeit her life as a revolutionary.
First, Rita becomes Susanne, a worker in a textiles factory. Legend has Susanne as a Westerner who wants to experience a genuine working-class life in the East. For the other workers around her, this desire is unfathomable and a tad dilettantish. Susanne’s donations to “the poor in Nicaragua,” combined with her developing relationship with Tatjana (Nadja Uhl), an alcoholic divorcee and factory outcast, highlight her strangeness. She does not fit, her false persona is soon discovered by a bitter factory-mate, and she is forced to run again.
Legend now has Sabine as an Easterner working in the child-care division of an industrial plant—a director of the annual summer camp who wants to join the Communist Party. While away on the Baltic Coast “working” for the summer, she falls in love with a lifeguard named Jochen (Alexander Beyer) and recognizes a former gang member who is also incognito, a member of a choir that sings a hybrid of Communist work songs and Christian hymns. New love and old memories only serve to reemphasize Rita’s caged-bird status; earlier, the identity-switching had little effect on her, Rita now realizes the limits of her movements. The Stasi forbids a marriage with Jochen, denies her membership in the Communist party (which requires truth at all times), and another legend appears imminent.
History intervenes: the Wall is demolished, and with it any hope of anonymity for former terrorists wanted by the West German authorities. It is here that the film ends, for, as Rita’s existence is explicitly linked to that of separate Germanys, the collapse of the East signifies the demise of Rita and her legends. Like the film’s hasty introduction, the conclusion also seems lacking in detail and duration. Rita does not deserve a quick finish. Yet The Legends of Rita reveals its sympathies in its extended attention to her many identities while she’s living in the East. She is a superficial subject, a symbol for the film’s latent focus on the people of Germany and their myths and histories. When separated by mortar and concrete, the people are fractured and schizophrenic, unable to achieve cohesion on numerous levels. With the demolition of the Wall comes a renewal of hope for cultural reunification, necessitating Rita’s extinction.