Crucible of the short 20th century, the native ground for displaced persons, rootless cosmopolitans, and revolutionaries of various persuasions, Central Europe proved to be a hard school. Differing aspects of this education inform two exemplary excursions into recent history, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Legend of Rita and Emmanuel Finkiel’s Voyages—both presenting credible protagonists whose lives have been palpably shaped by the impersonal forces of history.
Schlöndorff’s strongest film in decades, and one harking back to his 1976 Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Legend of Rita opens, sometime in the early 1970s, amid the heady excitement of a student-radical bank job: “Hi guys—we’re robbers—you saw us on TV! Property is theft!” It’s an act of brazen theatricality, amplified by the title-sequence blast of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Nothing masks the face of our heroine (Bibiana Beglau) unless it’s the exultant glow of self-righteous youth—or what the definitive account of West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof group calls “the wild glory of terror.” (That glory may be gone, but it is scarcely buried—as amply demonstrated by the current dilemma of Joseph Fischer, the long-ago street-fighting man who is now Germany’s foreign minister.)
Rita’s particular cell is never identified. Like Baader-Meinhof, she and her comrades engineer a prison break for their charismatic leader—and Rita’s lover—with fatal results, then flee through East Berlin to the Middle East. Their movements are facilitated by the agents of the East Germany Stasi, but perhaps because the movie was cowritten by the veteran East German screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase, these Cold War villains are not entirely inhuman. The East German secret police envy the West German radicals their romantic rebellion; they find the women in the group unimaginably free and sexy. The suburban wienie roast the Stasi stages to welcome the visiting desperadoes is the first of many ironies that Rita derives from placing the two manifestations of German revolution face to face—and it feels more authentic than the subsequent scenes of screaming arguments and period cant (“Every armed operation creates a new reality”) that Rita’s group endures as it falls apart in Paris.
Ultimately (like some members of the Red Army Faction), the terrorists seek sanctuary in East Germany, where they are offered new identities and the opportunity to, as their Stasi controller tells them with only the barest hint of a smirk, partake of the “life of the working class.” Thus, The Legend of Rita makes a brutal shift from New Left delusions of revolutionary grandeur to the depressed reality of everyday life under existing socialism. (The scenes doting on the accoutrements of ordinary existence suggest Germany’s post-unification fascination with DDR artifacts.)
Although no longer in her element, Rita retains her revolutionary enthusiasm. Her factory coworkers are amazed when she freely donates 10 marks to People’s Nicaragua. She wants to join the Party, but as “the Party demands the truth, always and everywhere,” the Stasi regretfully denies her that privilege. Rita is not, however, out of danger, and when the celebrity terrorist is recognized by a colleague, she must be instantly reinvented—given a new name, a new legend, a makeover, and transferred to another job.
As a case study of Communist psychology, The Legend of Rita cannot compare to the Hungarian film Angi Vera, which uses the politics of a Party leadership camp to portray a wider range of personalities. Still, Schlöndorff’s film manages to be both thoughtful and melodramatic, a vivid political thriller as well as an abstract analysis. If the prototypical Rita has no parents, it may be because Germany’s New Left terrorists were famously described as “children without fathers.” And, if the plot demands that she gratuitously shoot a Paris cop, it is because the filmmakers insist that her acts have irrevocable consequences. This is crucial in that Rita’s morals, as well as the film’s various inconsistencies of chronology and logic, are largely eclipsed by Bibiana Beglau’s incandescent performance.
Beglau, who won the best actress award at the last Berlin film festival, is well supported by Nadja Uhl’s East German punk, Tatjana, and Martin Wuttke’s Erwin, the not entirely unsympathetic Stasi man who recruits Rita and, in his fashion, watches out for her. He has a bit of a crush, as well he might. Fetching in every identity, Rita herself is motivated throughout by love—her initial passion for the terrorist leader Andi, her slow-burning affair with an unhappy (and antisocial) Tatjana, and her subsequent relationship with the young physicist who wants to marry her and take her with him to study in the Soviet Union. Whether from discipline or temperament, she is always reaching for human contact—nothing in the movie is more joyful (or pathetic) than the smile that illuminates her face when she spots an old comrade, also living an assigned legend, singing in a socialist choir.
Although “legend” is Stasi-speak for an invented past, events have given it another meaning. The collapse of the Berlin Wall renders Rita spectacularly anachronistic. (Even Erwin has the grace to be shocked when he encounters a cynicism greater than his own.) The Legend of Rita‘s hyperbolic Easy Rider closer brings the Bonnie and Clyde opening full circle, as a final, laconic title dispels the illusion: “That’s exactly how it was—more or less.”
Where lovely Rita is ultimately swept into the dustbin of history, the aged protagonists of Voyages have miraculously managed to escape their annihilation—and must forever wonder why.
The first section of this three-part movie, one of the highlights of last year’s “New Directors,” follows a tour group of elderly, once Polish, now mainly French, Jews on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. Their bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and as day wanes and snow falls they grow quarrelsome, compelled to consider the reasons they are where they are. Rivka (Shulamit Adar), the 60-something woman who is the sequence’s central figure, has returned to Poland from Israel—what is she looking for?
Writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel served as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s assistant director on the Three Colors trilogy and, like his mentor, has a knack for orchestrating ordinary moments of mystical communion—when another Auschwitz-bound tour bus pulls up alongside Rivka’s, she stares silently at the unknown confrere sealed in the vehicle of his own destiny. Voyages has the ethereality of a movie lost in the cosmos, but it’s grounded in a welter of observed details, precise vignettes, and self-contained performances, many by nonprofessional actors. Finkiel has gathered an astonishing ensemble, and to a large degree their being is his subject, as he documents the eloquence of their weathered hands and liquid eyes.
Cutting from the Auschwitz trip to the projection of its video documentation in a Paris gathering of elderly Yiddish-speaking Jews, Finkiel picks up the story of Rivka’s contemporary: Régine (Liliane Rovère) returns home to receive a phone call from Vilnius informing her that the now octogenarian parent whom she last saw when they were deported from Paris to Auschwitz, has finally located her and is en route to France. The white light revelation at the window is a prelude to the rondo of uncertainty, disbelief, conflict, and mutual embarrassment involved in her reconciliation with the stranger who calls himself her father.
The film’s final episode concerns another restless phantom. Vera (Esther Gorintin), a sturdy 85-year-old with no immediate family and an Auschwitz tattoo, accompanies her Moscow neighbors to Israel. After comfortable Paris and even Poland’s snow-softened bleakness, the harshly vibrant Israeli landscape is something of a shock. Searching for a long-lost cousin amid the heat and clamor of Tel Aviv, Vera tries to get by with Yiddish. Why does it take her so long to realize that she’d have an easier time speaking Russian? It’s because, among other things, Voyages presents itself as the last movie to emanate from that mythical meta-state called Yidishland. (The characters are, as Finkiel puts it, all “dust from the same star.”)
Israel is the land where the past truly inhabits the present. “You’re still the same girl,” Vera’s indescribably old cousin asserts when they finally meet. “Where were you all this time?” It’s an unanswerable question. In her travels, Vera also encounters Rivka (who is looking much better back in situ). Ending with one last providential twist, Voyages offers its own commentary on the uncanny coincidences and ghostly returns that characterize Kieslowski’s last films. You could say that in the lives of these elderly Jews, Kieslowski’s mysticism has been made not only material but historical as well.