“It comes down to a barbecue,” says Volker Schlöndorff, director of The Legend of Rita, about a West German terrorist who goes underground in East Germany during the 1980s. “Secret-service agents and terrorists grilling sausages and playing Ping-Pong together. We know about the Cold War, but how did it happen, in detail? I decided to make this movie when I found out about things like that.”
Schlöndorff’s heroine, Rita Vogt (brought to life by Bibiana Beglau in her screen debut), is based upon members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a radical collective. Their campaign of terror to destabilize West German society began in 1968 with the bombing of a Frankfurt department store, and stretched beyond the ’70s with prison breaks, kidnappings, and assassinations. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, 11 individuals wanted for terrorism in the West were discovered leading middle-class lives in the former East Germany. “We discussed if Bibiana should meet some of them,” Schlöndorff remembers. “She said no, she didn’t want to. But it was difficult for her to understand this generation that had been willing to sacrifice everything for a political idea.”
In 1968, Schlöndorff was 29; he had already launched the New German Cinema with his first film, Young Törless (1966), set in a Prussian boarding school. He wasn’t throwing stones in the street, but he was a keen observer of that year’s student protests. “It was a general anger at what they called ‘the System,’ ” he recalls. “At some point, while others remained verbal, the RAF became violent. It happened by degrees, and all of a sudden, before they even knew it, they found themselves on the most-wanted list.”
That’s where Bibiana Beglau discovered them, as a child growing up in a West German frontier town where her father worked as a border policeman. “The women looked so secretive and strange in those little blurry photographs,” the actress, who is 27, recollects. “And then, it became like a labyrinth in your mind—they were shooting people, and bombing big houses, because they wanted a better world.”
The director says he viewed the RAF’s activities “always with very 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.” Still, in The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), based upon a Heinrich Böll novel and codirected with Margarethe von Trotta (his wife at the time), Schlöndorff mounted a spirited attack on publisher Axel Springer, whose right-wing tabloids were using the crisis to crush civil liberties. Two years later, for the collaborative documentary Germany in Autumn, he filmed the funeral of three RAF leaders (members of the Baader-Meinhof group) found dead in prison.
Yet The Legend of Rita is not a political polemic but a study in character and a portrait of two cultures, one of which has vanished into history. “She could have been a Joan of Arc, or with the Weathermen, or with Mother Teresa,” Schlöndorff says of Rita. “She’s someone who can’t live without a cause, and the more utopian the better. Then suddenly, she’s thrown into the nitty-gritty of daily life in a socialist society.”
In 1991, after more than a decade of work abroad, Schlöndorff returned to Berlin and became involved in the renovation of the formerly state-run East German film studios just outside the city, in Babelsberg. It was a prime seat from which to view the divisions of the new Germany. “There’s this idea now that East Germans had the wrong ideas and lived the wrong life,” the director observes. “And vice versa, there’s this assumption that Westerners just did everything right. To me, this tension is a richness, rather than a problem. People from the former East Germany don’t necessarily want to return to socialism. But they feel a loss of belief, and they’re more able to question the system they joined.”