I recently watched the German film "The Legend of Rita", from the year 2000, (released in Germany under the name "Die Stille Nach dem Schuss), directed by Volker Schlondorff. Somehow this movie had escaped my attention for the past decade and more, which is odd when I consider that its subject matter is the type which genuinely fascinates me.
The movie tells the story of a West German former urban guerrilla (Rita, played by Bibiana Beglau) who takes refuge in East Germany, and is provided with a new identity by the Stasi, and assumes the guise of an "ordinary" citizen in the socialist state. She has to cope with the fear of her past being exposed, and thus causing embarrassment to the authorities of the DDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall later complicates the situation further. Her relationship with Tatjana (Nadja Uhl) is also explored.
Once the preliminary sequences were out of the way, and the story settled into a portrayal of Rita's travails in her new life in the East, I felt that the film found its true identity. The "human interest" angles were sensitively done, and were quite touching at times, especially the friendship between Rita and Tatjana. The tension was palpable, as one kept expecting Rita's cover to be blown in some way, or for her "back story" to unravel, and this helped me identify with her anxiety and also appreciate the resilience and vigilance she had to summon up in order to cope.
There are clear allusions in this movie to real people, and to real-life events, but in the end it is a fictitious tale. This means that there was no need, or temptation. to pack in every historical anecdote and incident. "The Legend of Rita" moves at its own pace, and on its own terms.
In my view, the early "action" scenes were a mixed bag, but I guess that they were essential to some degree for a full understanding of the background to the story. The rhetoric emanating from the mouths of the "terrorists" was occasionally corny, but it also helped to highlight and express their frustrations, their dilemmas and the disagreements which occasionally plagued their enterprises.
One of the central themes which the film articulates is how Rita's idealism and enthusiasm for the GDR "project" came up against the cynicism and apathy of the East German people who she encountered. As much of the story is set in the 1980s, the penny had clearly dropped with the populace by then. I ended up seeing both sides of the argument, acknowledging the stultification which the East Germans had endured, but also perhaps sensing that Rita had really "found" herself in her new environment, having escaped what she perceived to be the numbing effects of consumerism and the "rat race".
"The Legend of Rita" also raises the old question of theory versus reality, with the main protagonist being brought face-to-face with the pragmatism which real life, bitter and sour experience, and empirical evidence, instill in people. Fine and lofty words and ideas are all well and good, but they don't always work in practice, or satisfy the basic aspirations of the masses. There is one very instructive scene, just after Rita has made the decision to remain in the East, when Erwin, the Stasi man, does his best, using some oblique language,to warn her what she will be up against.
It would be easy to accept that the film presents an image of uniform greyness, austerity and conformity in East Germany, but that is not quite the impression which I formed. We see many attitudes, problems and practices which have a universal resonance, including mental illness and alcoholism. Yes, the tone and the atmosphere are primarily dark, but isn't this everyday life, for most people, wherever they happen to live? The picture which was painted was to me rather nuanced and credible.
Two acting performances really stand out. Bibiana Beglau is excellent as Rita, conveying her complex personality, which has perhaps partly been conditioned by her unorthodox life. A mixture of insecurity, courage, resolution, fear and even fatalism. Nadja Uhl is very engaging as Tatjana, bringing out her character's vulnerability and her humanity. The scene where the two characters part I found very moving, and also tough to watch.
I found this picture to be more plausible and well-executed than most works which cover similar territory. The understated production values, and the believable countenance of some of the characters aided in this. It certainly got my grey matter churning, and the movie gently poses some awkward and pertinent questions.
I still wasn't quite expecting that ending, though....