The Legend of Rita
Former Programming Apprentice, Austin Film Society
Volker Schlondorff was born in Wiesbaden, Germany on March 3, 1939. Along with other directors such as Herzog, Wenders, and Fassbinder, Schlondorff belonged to the group of filmmakers who took to heart the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto which declared, “The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new cinema.” Ushering in the New German Cinema of the 60’s and 70’s, these young filmmakers allied themselves to this Oberhausen group in their rejection of the existing German film industry and their determination to build a new industry founded on artistic excellence rather than commercial needs.
Some view Schlondorff as the most anomalous member of this disparate group of filmmakers. He eschewed the idiosyncratic styles and themes favored by these aforementioned directors, and favored literary adaptations and socially conscious films that tackled historical and political issues. The most accomplished Schlondorff films examine the twin chimeras of the Nazi past and the paranoia engendered by the West German terrorist scare of the 1970’s, with The Tin Drum and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum respectively.
Schlondorff made his directorial debut in 1966 with an adaptation of Robert Musil’s short novel, Young Torless. This story deals with a young schoolboy who fails to intervene when a classmate is brutally beaten by his peers. This tale can easily be interpreted as a thinly veiled portrait of the psychological roots of National Socialism.
In 1975, Schlondorff teemed up with Margarethe von Trotta, his wife from 1971-1991, and wrote and co-directed a much more high-profile political film, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. This faithful adaptation of Heinrich Boll’s novel tells the story of Katharina Blum, an innocent housekeeper whose life is ruined by an invasive tabloid reporter and a police investigation when the man she is in love with turns out to be a potential terrorist. Controversy spurred when the film targeted the West German tabloid press, specifically the German Bild-Zeitung, and the assault on civil liberties engendered by the antiterrorism scare of the Seventies. I highly recommend watching this film as a companion to The Legend of Rita, as the female character mirrors Rita remarkably.
Schlondorff’s most ambitious adaptation and most celebrated film to date is Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1979). The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival and the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was one of the most financially successful German films of the 70’s. The film tells the story of Oskar, who receives a tin drum on his third birthday and decides never to get any older or bigger. As Germany degenerates towards Nazism and war in the 1930s and 1940s, the unageing Oskar continues savagely beating his drum. Oskar’s refusal to grow up can be construed as either the epitome of antiauthoritarian rebelliousness or symptomatic of the propensity of entire cultures to regress to a state of infantile rage, a phenomenon that reached an obviously catastrophic zenith during the Nazi era. Both novel and film are definitely worth taking a look at, as long as you have a sense of humor and can look beyond what more conservative viewers have deemed ‘child pornography.’
Though Schlondorff’s films often tackle political and controversial events, he tells us, “I don’t really know whether films can change society. But I feel we need those films with a conscience to enrich our lives. To put things into perspective, and to all of a sudden see that in other places and in other times people had similar struggles as we have right now, is enlightening, is enriching, and is encouraging. So we simply need that. I think art in general is a great help for us to survive.”
Schlondorff’s film The Legend of Rita (2000) aggressively continues his desire to enrich the lives of his viewers by offering a new perspective on life in Germany from the late 70’s to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1990.
THE RED ARMY FACTION (RAF)
The Legend of Rita opens to the tune of the “Internationale” playing on an old music box. We find ourselves in West Germany where a bank robbery is in progress. The armed robbers are handing out cookies to the victims and proclaiming, “Ownership is theft.” This fairy tale opening gives an ironic first look into the lives of terrorists where youthful spontaneity seems more important than ideology. Rita tells us in voice over, “We wanted to abolish injustice and the state along with it, all over the world.” Abstract, dogmatic phrases such as this saturate the terrorists’ conversation in an attempt to justify the hardened violence which begins to occur. Cookies go forgotten, and innocent bystanders become casualties of “the war on imperialism.”
Though the film begins with terrorism in West Germany, after the first twenty minutes, it becomes clear Schlondorff isn’t concerned with politics in this film. Having already tackled terrorists in other films such as Katharina Blum and Germany in Autumn, Schlondorff says he was not interested in exploring any historical background. Instead, he uses this history of German terrorism as a means to paint a psychological portrait of a young woman and to reveal life in the DDR.
Nevertheless, it is important to have a clear understanding of the political climate in Germany during the late 70’s to get through these 20 minutes. Upon my first viewing, I had little historical knowledge of Germany in the 70’s and absolutely no acquaintance with terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction (RAF). Lacking such, I found it difficult to grasp exactly what was going on, for Schlondorff gives only a choppy representation of this history and omits many important details. Who are these idealistic terrorists and what are they rebelling against? Why does East Germany seem to be enabling senseless acts of violence in the West? After delving into Germany’s terrorist past, I still find these questions difficult to answer. However, here is a sample of my findings.
The Red Army Faction (RAF) emerged from the student movement in the late 1960’s. At this time, industrialized nations were experiencing massive social upheavals that stemmed from dissatisfaction with capitalist society among both workers and students.
In Germany, the historical legacy of fascism drove a wedge between the generations and increased suspicion of authoritarian structures in society helping to alienate young people from both their parents and the institutions of the state. Schlondorff calls this the fatherless generation. He states, “We didn’t want to be associated with our parents, especially not with our fathers, for in our eyes, they had already failed.” Germany’s past experience of Nazism pushed these young radicals to the extreme. Many of the radicals felt that Germany’s lawmakers were continuing authoritarian policies, and the public’s apparent acquiescence was seen as a continuation of the indoctrination the Nazis had pioneered in society.
Post-war writings on class society and empire heavily influenced the ideology of the radicalized youth in West Germany. Among these influential writers came Herbert Marcuse, who insisted on the need for complete brute force in modern liberal democracies. He argued that only marginal groups of students and poor, alienated workers could effectively resist the system.
The means of physical, brute force to bring about change was put to test in the spring of 1968 when Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, Thorwald Proll, and Horst Sohnlein set fire to two department stores in Frankfurt as a protest against the Vietnam war. Despite their efforts, the war raged on, and the four were sentenced to three years in prison. Undeterred by failure, and jail time, Baader, Proll, and Ensslin escaped to Italy where Mahler visited them and encouraged them to return to Germany with him to form an underground guerilla group, the Red Army Faction.
The RAF formed in 1970 as the first organization to give armed struggle a consistent and structured form within the context of the international anti-imperialist movement of the day. Most members of this group came from the middle class but students took care to recruit from working class for ideological and practical reasons. The group’s objective was armed resistance against fascist tendencies. It described itself as a communist “urban guerrilla” group, though the West German government described it as a terrorist group.
In its first manifesto, “The Concept of the Urban Guerilla,” the RAF stated, “We affirm that the organization of armed resistance groups in West Germany and West Berlin is correct, possible, and justified. We further state that it is correct, possible, and justified to conduct urban guerilla war now. It can and must be started now, and without it there will never be an anti-imperialist struggle in the metropolis.” They ended the manifesto within the international context, stating, “To carry out urban guerilla warfare means to lead the anti-imperialist struggle offensively. The Red Army Faction creates the connection between legal and illegal struggle, between national struggle and international struggle, between political struggle and armed struggle, between the strategical and tactical position of the international communist movement.”
The RAF operated from the 1970’s to 1993, committing numerous crimes including numerous bombings and bank robberies. It was responsible for 34 deaths, which included many secondary targets such as chauffeurs and bodyguards.
After German reunification in 1990, it came to light that the RAF had received financial and logistic support from the Stasi, the security and intelligence organization of East Germany, which had given several members shelter and new identities, although this was already generally suspected at the time.
FACT VS FICTION
When the Berlin wall came down in 1990, Schlondorff quickly moved from New York to Berlin to be in the center of the action. One of the first stories he came upon in the Berlin newspapers involved eleven West German terrorists arrested in East Germany where they had been in hiding with the help of the Stasi, the East German secret police. Teeming up with an East German screenwriter, Kohlaase, Schlondorff began visiting three women in prison who had been arrested in the GDR and returned to West Germany with the fall of the wall. These three women became the composite of the fictional character Rita Vogt, with the most influence coming from the stories of Inge Viett. Inge Viett was a member of the RAF who, according to her autobiography, “never felt comfortable with the rigid dogma of the RAF, and when she began to see the futility of continuing the ‘project of armed resistance,’ she willingly took up the offer of covert asylum in the GDR.”
The first completed screenplay was finished in 1992. It was extremely documented and absolutely truthful to the individual character. However, at the time, nobody wanted to produce it. No one wanted to hear about the GDR anymore; it was still too close. Schlondorff concentrated on other projects such as The Ogre and Palmetto, both of which suffered negative reviews. (On viewing Palmetto, I fully understand the criticism and do not recommend adding this film to your Netflix queue. As for The Ogre, I cannot say.) However, he kept coming back to this project. He finally took the Palmetto money and partnered up with Kohlaase once more to write a fresh screenplay from a new perspective. This time they didn’t go back to the historic documents, and instead wrote from the materials as if it were a fictional story. Schlondorff feels that “fiction is always more satisfying; it’s rounder, with a proper beginning and ending.”
Though a fictional story with fictional characters, almost all the events featured in the film come from historical documents.
- Gudrun Ensslin joined the RAF out of affection for Andreas Baader, and when Baader was jailed, she, like Rita, planned the operation that sprung him from jail.
- Inge Viett, Rita’s real life role model, had a very similar encounter with a French cop who questioned why she was riding a motorcycle without a helmet. This encounter went down in real life much as it does in the film (but no spoilers here!).
- The RAF really did use East Berlin as a transit station between the West and East Bloc.
- Bank robberies were a common RAF practice as a means to fund their bombings.
- The Stasi officer is an authentic portrait of the actual guy who was in charge of terrorists. He provided Schlondorff with many details, and that’s why he’s such a well-developed character.
- Tatjana’s character came from a biography booklet Schlondorff found at a flea market about a lady who was arrested because of her hair-do.
Though Schlondorff and Kohlaase ventured into the realm of fiction, the realistic portrayals of the events led to legal battles. Inge Viett settled out of court after suing Schlondorff for telling a version of her story to which she didn’t consent. Ironically, Viett was prepared to use the force of law to protect the representation of her history as a revolutionist against the state.
EAST VS WEST
As I stated earlier, while terrorism takes up the first 20 minutes of this film, the true story begins when Rita seeks asylum and begins life anew in East Germany. For the first time, she must confront her ideals with reality and see whether her utopian ideas hold up when the societies of the East and West come head to head.
More than a clash of ideologies, the separation between the East and West provide Germany with two very distinct cultures, one formed by 40 years of capitalism, and the other by 40 years of socialism. Schlondorff, having lived in West Germany, confesses he, along with other leftists had no idea what was really going on in the east. Nobody crossed the wall for more than a day trip. When planning this film, Schlondorff formed a unique collaboration with screenwriter, Kohlhaase, who had lived in the East during the whole reign of the GDR. As a rule, Schlondorff tells us that East Germans and West Germans do not work together, but this partnership made sense since the main character comes from the west, and the story is told not from within the GDR but from a westerner’s point of view.
Current tensions between these two cultures helped push this film into production. Schlondorff sees the German population today beginning to realize that the wall did more than separate two political systems. It created two different sets of values with two different ways of growing up resulting in two different patterns of behavior and life experiences. Evidence of these differences came to the forefront with casting decisions. All of the East German roles are played by East Germans, and all of the West German roles are played by West Germans. This wasn’t intentional on Schlondorff’s part, but when it came to the characters, the East Germans simply played their respective parts better, and vice-versa.
The differences didn’t lie in dialect or physical appearance, but in the simple turn of phrases, the way of speaking and articulating oneself, and in body language.
The actors happily jumped on the chance to have the opportunity to show what their lives had been like 10 years earlier. They wanted to show that the possibility of life full of dancing and sunny beaches could exist in the GDR. There was more than just decaying inner cities featured prominently in movies set in this time period. (As an American viewer, these subtle differences escaped me upon my first viewing. Perhaps reading subtitles does little to differentiate styles of speaking. However, after turning on the commentary and having Schlondorff tell me what to look for, I can almost notice a distinction.)
Along with the East German roles, the lighting director also came from the East. Schlondorff didn’t want to create an East Germany where everything seemed grey with a cold war feeling. He wanted an artist who would give life in the East a warmer feeling than had previously been shown. Using a man who knew that life in the East wasn’t all drab and dreary helped achieve this look.
However, no one disputes the GDR had its drawbacks. With her move to the east, Rita comes face to face with the fact that problems exist outside of capitalism. She forms a meaningful relationship with Tatjana, an interesting foil to Rita, who feels trapped behind the wall as an East German and has resorted to alcohol as her means of coping with the monotony of socialist life. This dark reality goes against Rita’s naïve ideology, and Rita has trouble grasping Tatjana’s desire to escape along with her pessimistic worldview that “reality is a drag both here and there.”
While Schlondorff had little concept of what life meant in East Germany before reunification, he admits that East Germany had a special meaning for him as a state where so many sacrificed for the ideals of the left. “We had the end of socialism in Europe, and we had the winner, which was the market. And you had the loser, which was all these ideals of the left for which so many people had sacrificed for 150 years.”
However, some attack Schlondorff’s nostalgia for socialist ideals as naïve and as uninformed as Rita’s own fantastic ideology. David Walsh argues against Schlondorff’s idea of socialism stating, “The regimes in eastern Europe were not the creations of an independent, socialist movement of the working class but rather the result of the manipulations and machinations of the Stalinist bureaucracies. There is a false identification of the eastern European states with socialism, which leads, in the direction of the old Stalinist canard that any critic past or present of these repressive regimes is ‘anti-socialist’ and guilty of giving aid to the enemy.”
The division, as well as the reunification, of East and West has long plagued postwar Germany’s identity and threatened its stability. Films about either period, like films about the holocaust, most often leave one audience or another unsatisfied or downright insulted.
This division becomes readily apparent in the reactions by the media. Some claim Schlondorff has been too soft in his portrayal of the RAF, while others, including sections of the German liberal and left press, claim that his portrayal is far too harsh. The film critic of the Frankfurter Rundschau slates the film as cliché-filled and objects to its presentation of the RAF as simply “a load of romantics and dreamers.” This last statement is ironic for the main aim of the film was to do away with the normal clichés of terrorists, the Stasi, and the GDR.
Two lobbies at work clash to give such mixed reviews. On one hand, forces close to the state strive to preserve the image of the RAF as a serious political force which in the 70’s was close to bringing the Bundesrepublik to its knees. On the other, many Germans still retain fond memories of the RAF. With The Legend of Rita, Schlondorff has put his finger on a wound and provoked an ugly response.
THE CHARACTER OF RITA
Schlondorff often deals with questions of why he decided to paint a portrait of a woman terrorist, when most of the members of the RAF were men. To this, Schlondorff responds, “We never considered picking one of the men to tell this story because a female terrorist has a different connotation than a male terrorist. The male terrorist is very chauvinistic, there’s always a macho element involved, whereas for a woman it’s a more ‘castrating’ thing.” (I have no idea what he means by this, and I’m not sure he understands women, but I felt I needed to include it.)
He continues to explain, “Rita is a portrait of a woman who is totally altruistic, seemingly unselfish, and who has this nurturing instinct. She doesn’t know very well who she is, so she has to live for an ideal, and she’s lost without that. Such people usually fail because they lose touch with reality. The idea becomes so important that they don’t see the daily reality around them anymore.”
However, I have trouble grasping just what ideals Rita clings to. At the beginning of the film, she tells her friend she joined the resistance because of a crush on Andi, the leader of the group. She appears to be joking, and Schlondorff explains in his commentary that you can see she has more profound reasons for being involved than just having a crush on that guy. Yet, these reasons are never articulated. Later on, Rita argues with Andi over whether they should rob another bank. The fight gets heated, and Rita retreats saying, “I don’t want to fight politics, I just want to be with you.”
The irritating omission of Rita’s motivation for joining the RAF is somewhat rectified by Bibiana Beglau’s outstanding portrayal of Rita. Rita’s actions could easily make one view her as little more than a sex-crazed, cold-blooded killer. But Bibiana lends the character an innate sense of passion and compassion that explains her embracing of socialism where the narrative can’t. When working with the actors, Schlondorff says, “We never discussed motivation or the meaning, it was a much more physical way of working, and you gain a certain confidence from just trusting the human being and letting them express themselves. I was more interested in character than in ideas.”
Throughout the film, Rita is a lover much more than a fighter. Everywhere she goes, she quickly finds a companion. Of these, Tatjana is perhaps the most interesting. Inge Viett, Rita’s role model, came out as a lesbian when she was a teenager, and Schlondorff initially considered exploring the lesbian dynamics within the terrorist world. However, when presenting this idea, Schlondorff tells us, “Kohlhaase was scared shitless and said, ‘We can’t do that, there is absolutely no way,’ but he saved it for at least one episode with Tatjana.”
In her last attempt to express her idealistic desires, Rita writes to Tatjan, “I dreamed of a life without lies and deceit, you did too, but in a different way. I hated the system we were living in. But nobody grasped our dreams. I didn’t just want to hide here. I was on a quest for a world I never knew. I wanted to go forward and not back.”