THE LEGEND OF RITA

Directed by Volker Schlondorff

Written by Wolfgang Kohlhasse in collaboration with Schlondorff

With Bibiana Beglau, Martin Wuttke, Nadja Uhl and Harald Schrott

Distributed by Kino International

***


Gerhard Richter's series of 15 paintings of the Baader-Meinhof group,  left-wing West German terrorists who died in prison under suspicious circumstances, testify to how thoroughly their actions shook Germany. He sympathized neither with their political goals nor their brutal methods, but nevertheless, he wasn't immune to the appeal of their outlaw glamour and dreams of remaking their world. Even so, his paintings are blurry, fuzzed-out under the influence of  memory and  media. (They're based on TV images and photo stills of the group.) More than anything else, they speak about the distance between Richter and his subjects.

THE LEGEND OF RITA reminds me of Richter's series, but with the crucial difference that Schlondorff  makes a leap of empathy between himself and his title heroine. (His would-be revolutionary, Rita, is based on Inge Viet, who shot and paralyzed a French cop and served 7 and 1/2 years in jail after a stretch on the lam.) Back in Baader-Meinhof's heyday, he shored up his image as West Germany's conscience - a less cutting social critic than the grimly masochistic Rainer Werner Fassbinder or right-wing Brechtian Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, but possibly more effective at speaking to a large audience - with THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM (co-directed by his then-wife Margarethe von Trotta), a look at a woman whose life is ruined by false accusations after a brief fling with a wanted leftist.

In an interview with Leslie Camhi in THE VILLAGE VOICE, Schlondorff discusses his own ambivalence towards Baader-Meinhof: "{I  viewed them}  always with mixed feelings. The killings were not only morally reprehensible, but politically gratuitous. They produced only more paramilitary-style police, and laws that were intolerant, and they discredited the left." Fassbinder's 1979 film THE THIRD GENERATION went even further, describing a terrorist group in secret alliance with capitalist businessmen. Beyond the violence they directly enacted, Baader-Meinhof's legacy was an atmosphere of suspicion towards even legitimate political dissent in 70s West Germany. This atmosphere was the subject of the omnibus  GERMANY IN AUTUMN, and it obviously still haunted Schlondorff when he made THE LEGEND OF RITA two years ago.

Rita (Beglau) is a member of a radical, unnamed West German  organization, who dream of fighting capitalism in the Third World, but  in the meantime, rob banks to demonstrate that "property is theft." (Their actions seem to begin in the early 70s, the glory days of Krautrock and New German Cinema.) Setting the mood, the credits are set to the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man." Rita's group gets into real trouble when they try to free their leader (and her lover), Andi (Schrott), from prison. In the ensuing battle, she kills a man, and the group are forced to emigrate to East Berlin. For some of them, this is just a way station, but for her, East Germany becomes home. With the aid of Erwin (Wuttke), a middle-aged Stasi man fascinated by her daring, she settles into a new life (complete with  new name and fictional background) as a textile factory worker. Her dull job is livened by her growing friendship with Tatjana (Uhl), an alcoholic who dreams of escaping to the West. However, the past still stakes its claim on her, forcing her away from Tatjana just when their relationship  begins to bud into a love affair.

In many respects, Rita and Tatjana are attracted because they share so much in common. Both are rebels, but while Rita struck out at society, Tatjana directs her anger inward. Uhl gives a terrific performance, shading layers of vulnerability beneath Tatjana's  loud-mouthed, punkish exterior.   Refreshingly, THE LEGEND OF RITA treats Rita's bisexual desires in a completely matter-of-fact fashion: neither woman thinks there's anything unusual or particularly transgressive about their relationship. Some of the other members of Rita's group have trouble adjusting from their sub-Bohemian lifestyles to ordinary working-class life, but she doesn't, in part because she really believes there's something noble about it.  All the women she works with, especially Tatjana, are far more cynical, but Rita actually expects that the donations requested at her factory will benefit Nicaraguan peasants, rather than the East German bureaucracy. Most of the film's overtly political dialogue rings stiff and phony, especially Rita's speech berating her comrades for their contempt towards what Communism could have been, but its grasp on everyday life in East Germany feels far more believable.

The first ten minutes of THE LEGEND OF RITA convey the thrill of being a street fighting man (or woman) quite well. Schlondorff stages the bank robbery as an exciting action scene, all camera jitters and jump cuts. However, he's not concerned so much with Rita's outlaw period as with its aftermath.  Her group's ideology rarely goes beyond simplistic anarchist slogans, and their notion of flying off to Angola or Mozambique and fitting in comfortably there is ludicrous.  Schlondorff certainly criticizes  their naiveté, and he doesn't shy away  from the mindless violence it leads to. Yet he's more interested in evoking the now distant idealism underlying it than attacking it.

The time frame of THE LEGEND OF RITA is a little confusing - perhaps it might be less so to German viewers - as the better part of two decades passes by rather quickly. (The posters of Jimi Hendrix and Louis Malle's 1965 film VIVA MARIA!, in which Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau forment a revolution in Latin America, in Rita's crash pad suggest that it could even begin in the 60s.) Its pacing and rhythm feel odd enough to raise the suspicion that Schlondorff's original cut ran far longer. This vagueness hurts the film's evocation of  the 70s and 80s, but its conflation of New Left and Soviet bloc Communist idealism implies that Schlondorff is describing something larger and more longer-lasting than a specific historical period.

THE LEGEND OF RITA is that rare film about the  counterculture that's neither a nostalgia piece or a conservative critique. By its end, as Rita's life crumbles with the Wall, she obviously tastes the ashes  of defeat and regret pretty clearly. Nevertheless, Schlondorff and Kohlhasse (an East German himself) treat her idealism with the kindest respect. If Schlondorff's direction matched his good intentions, THE LEGEND OF RITA might have rivaled his compatriot Edgar Reitz's THE SECOND HEIMAT, which may be the definitive film about the  60s in Europe.  After an initial burst of energy, it's rather stolid and competent, looking like a well-crafted made-for-TV movie. However, as an attempt to bridge the gap between present-day Western complacency and previous generations' failures, it's surprisingly powerful. Rather than lament our inability to grasp the past, it tries hard - and relatively successfully - to shine a clearer light on recent history: a difficult task, but an inspiring leap of faith.