Posted: November 28, 2001
A review of "The Legends of Rita" (Die Stille nach dem Schuss), directed by Volker Schlöndorff; written (in German, with English subtitles) by Wolfgang Kohlhasse and Volker Schlöndorff. Starring Bibiana Baglau (Rita), Martin Wuttke (Hull), Nadja Uhl (Tatjana), Harald Schrott (Andi), Alexander Beyer (Jochen), and Jenny Schily (Friederike). Available on CHS and DVD. (103 minutes, Not Rated)
Like a well-researched historical novel, "The Legends of Rita" is almost true. There was no "Rita Vogt," but there were many young women like her who joined the terrorist underground in the early 1970s in Germany, and from their remarkable lives this film has been composed.
Barbara Meyer of the Baader-Meinhof gang was at the end of her teens and lovely, with "the face of an angel," but she was an accomplice to political murder, like Rita.
Gudrun Ensslin joined the gang out of affection for Andreas Baader and because she was a true believer in violent Marxism. When Baader was jailed, she—like Rita—planned the operation that sprung him.
Inge Viett, a German terrorist using Paris safehouses, did shoot a French cop who dared to ask her why she was riding her motorcycle without a helmet. In this film it is one of Rita's friends who fired the pistol.
Astrid Proll, an excellent car thief and driver for the gang's bank robberies, spoke for terrorists everywhere when she told a reporter years later that they deserved to be seen as idealists: "we were very well-armed social workers." Ms. Proll operated in Paris as well as in Germany, like the cinematic Rita.
The East German Stasi (secret police) did indeed shelter and support German female and male terrorists who had fled Western police. The Baader-Meinhofs, and their descendants called the Red Army Faction, used East Berlin as a transit station between the West, the East Bloc, and the Middle East with its Palestinian training camps and roiling low intensity conflicts. East German agents could help "militant internationalists" in most of those countries.
Or they could protect them within East Germany, as with terrorists Susanne Albrecht and Inge Viett, who were covertly immigrated and settled in banal jobs in Dresden and Magdeburg. In this film, "Susanne" is the very name Rita assumes for a new life under communism. She comes to be seen by coworkers as an embarrassingly naïve fan of the East German system. And she similarly resembles the real Inge Viett in being notably unenthused by the democratic movement of the late 1980s, which excited many East German laborers.
"The Legends of Rita" is thus a valuable portrait as well as an entertaining one. Whatever the politics of scriptwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who flourished in the Communist period in East Germany, the film calmly details many essential truths that were once verboten. American analysts of the late Cold War used to debate the question: "Does the Commmunist bloc back terrorism in the West?" This new German move is one more affirmation atop the maze of papers from police and foreign ministry offices that have poured out of Budapest, Bucharest, Berlin, and Moscow since the Wall fell down. Today, evidence that Communist States helped German and Italian terrorists, various Palestinians, and even Carlos the Jackal is so overwhelming that many U.S. citizens barely recall the old disagreement, while many academics and self-important newsmen like Daniel Schorr want to forget how wrong they were in ridiculing the idea.
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Bibiana Beglau plays "Rita." She is a young woman with clear determination but no rage; she is more sober than many of her cohorts. The scene opens in West Germany with her orchestration of the prison breakout of her lover/comrade. Like the Andreas Baader of contemporary history, this male leader frequently raves at the women in the terrorist group and belittles them—from a proper Leftist perspective. In the film, the man soon enough takes up with a different terrorist mistress, but then both die at a police checkpoint.
Rita's attentions thus shift. She devotes herself to being a good worker in her new East German environs, and she makes new friends. They find Rita deeply empathetic, generous, and even quick to cover for their errors. One close friend is a fellow factory hand, female, prone to drink, whose nascent lesbian interests bring even the libertine Rita to draw the line. Next there is a fling and a friendship with a lifeguard, the proverbial bronzed beach boy on the Baltic coast. Like other East Germans around Rita, however, he grows unnerved as her past is uncovered. Average East German citizens seem to think terrorism stupid and immoral. Not to Stasi agent "Erwin," our terrorist heroine's manager; he sees the violent German young people as immature, yes, but as anti-capitalist allies deserving protection. Despite Erwin's status as an agent for a totalitarian system, Director Volker Schlöndorff and his screenwriter seem fond of him, as they are of Rita. Well played by Martin Wuttke, Erwin is humane. Whatever the crisis, or however small the concern, he seems to know the best way, and says the right words. Among his duties is helping Rita create her new "legends," the false personal histories that help her fit quietly in successive East German communities for years at a time. By the late 1980s, as that state's moral emptiness gapes and the Stasi's power wanes, agent Erwin displays slightly more loyalty to his pretty charge than to his decrepit government, and he tries to help her escape before lesser men of the "People's Police" grab her for extradition. Other terrorists sheltering in the East are so grabbed, gifts offered up to West Germany in the act of reunification.
Erwin and Rita might have realized that they represent two kinds of political failure, both radically undemocratic. But more in Marxist character, they see themselves ad unfortunates "swept up by history," and together "caught between East and West." Each must now promise to forget knowing the other; each must forge a new legend to escape democratic authorities. That careful advice is the Stasi man's last, and he fades quietly from the scene. Rita makes a less skillful, more dramatic exit. But ever the "idealist" and "the good terrorist," she goes out without having personally shot anyone.
Most of Germany's 82 million people today are grateful things ended as they did: urban guerrilla warfare lost; the open civil society won. What was largely evil gave way to what it largely good. The creators of "The Legends of Rita" are not fully reconciled to this obvious truth, and this is their voice, speaking out from center-left, to slightly shape the past as it recedes.
But they tell a fine story. There are a hundred accurate details in this picture, all visible beneath the subtle rose tinting. The last frame, before the credits roll, declares with some truth: "That's exactly how it was, more or less."