The Legend of Rita
Directed by Volker Schlondorff
Reviewed by Anne Marie Brady
Thursday, July 19 2001, 4:56 PM
The Legend of Communism would have been a fine alternative title for The Legend of Rita, German director Volker Schlondorff's most recent film. Then, although Rita, a committed West German leftist, is the film's focus,she represents something much larger -- the fate of communism in East Germany.
The Legend of Rita opens in the early 1970s as Rita Voigt and her comrades declare their opposition to capitalism and the Federal Republic of Germany by engaging in a series of radical actions against the main pillars of West German society. In Rita's worldview, the German Democratic Republic represents a safe haven, a vast zone of freedom. In the East, the worth of individuals is not measured by their material possessions, but by their capacities as human beings to work together toward the greater good of society. The desire to see these same ideals realized in the West motivates Rita's decision to take her first steps down the road of radical political opposition. Branded by the police as terrorists, Rita flees with her compatriots, first to Beirut and then to Paris. She finally lands in East Berlin, escaping there after shooting a policeman while successfully resisting arrest in Paris. In the capital of East German communism, she enters the East German equivalent of the 'witness protection program', adopting a new identity and re-inventing herself as a typical socialist worker. During this period, Rita has a pivotal experience in her career as revolutionary. For the first time, she interacts with East Germans who are critical of the communist regime and who doubt the ideals for which it stands.
As Schlondorff presents Rita's story he eschews the moralistic, condemnatory tone so typical of mainstream West German treatments of East Germany. In his eyes, the German Democratic Republic was not so much a system that was wrong but rather one that was dysfunctional. It was a system that could not live up to its ideals because corrupt party officials and state bureaucrats, following their lust for power and wealth, would not let it. Of all of the film's characters, it is Rita who most clearly embodies these ideals betrayed. She fervently believes in the socialist system, even after Tatjana, her closest friend, is arrested and jailed for refusing to sign a document stating that she did not know Rita was a former terrorist. Ironically, Rita, the Westerner, becomes a prophet-figure, defending the socialist government, reveling in her life as an "arbeiter", and constantly preaching to those who she feels are in need of guidance because they have lost their communist faith. Even as the Berlin Wall falls and the impending threat of a western takeover becomes more evident, Rita makes an impassioned plea to her co-workers in defense of the socialist ideals of the East German government.
Via Rita's encounter with the East German regime and with East Germans, Schlondorff helps to dispel myths about the East, a useful endeavor in an united Germany where tensions between eastern and western Germans remain. Schlondorff uses the figure of Rita to remind viewers of the genuine idealist intent of the German Democratic Republic, even as he never loses sight of the real abuses of power and political repression that took place within its borders, repression that inevitably brought the system down.
Rita's death parallels the end of East Germany. Shot by the West German police, Rita is suddenly gone, erased, not unlike East Germany's disappearance from the landscape of the unified Federal Republic of Germany. With one shot, the East as personified in Rita, disappears. As a sudden sadness for the loss of Rita engulfs the viewer, it is hard not to also feel a sense of loss for the socialist system she so ardently believed in, flawed as it was.
Schlondorff is clever. He treats the East German experience with sensitivity, refusing to portray the German Democratic Republic as ridiculous. Yet, he is also critical of the same system and avoids trafficking in cheap nostalgia for some lost eastern socialist utopia, what the Germans call Ostalgie. Finally, Schlondorff doesn't limit his approach to an assessment of the post-war political fates of the East and West, but, in his moving and careful portrait of Rita, he simultaneously explores the complexity of identity itself, a fact which makes this movie a singular accomplishment in recent German cinema.