Volker Schlöndorff’s The Legend of Rita , from a screenplay by Wolfgang
Kohlhaase in collaboration with Mr. Schlöndorff, starts with an ill-fated band
of Marxist revolutionaries in Germany in the 1970’s. Rita Vogt (Bibiana Beglau)
has joined the movement, partly out of disaffection with the
capitalist-materialist system prevailing in West Germany and partly out of her
love for Andi (Harald Schrott), one of the most articulate of the ringleaders.
But this is not a love story, rather a story of espionage that ends badly and
ironically for Rita with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Mr. Schlöndorff
and Mr. Kohlhaase, though sympathetic to left-wing feelings in both West and
East Germany, do not give a blank check to terrorism as a means of effecting
From Young Torless
in 1966 through The Lost Honor of
Katharina Blum in 1975 and The Tin
Drum in 1979, Mr. Schlöndorff has built his filmmaking reputation as a
humanist with none of the stylistic eccentricities of his German
contemporaries-Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. Hence,
his 35-year career and 21 films have been underestimated by the taste makers in
the world of art films. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can discern
the work of a conscientious, politically engaged but fair-minded chronicler of
Germany’s post-traumatic stress disorders as they have affected its more
sensitive and guilt-ridden citizens.
Rita Vogt is a case in point, as she tries to retrieve a
life severely compromised by emotional errors and miscalculations. There is no
preaching on the subject, but rather a fascinatingly detailed account of how a
West German terrorist is absorbed into the fabric of an East German
criminal-protection program. The realistic texture of the process is enhanced
by the use of unfamiliar though gifted performers in all the major roles.
Ms. Beglau’s Rita is forced by her predicament to become a
bit of a chameleon as she moves from job to job behind the Iron Curtain. Her
closest relationship in the East is with her secret-police contact agent, Erwin
Hull (Martin Wuttke), who dedicates himself to her safety. In turn, Hull is the
only person Rita can trust, though she does form a quasi-lesbian bond with
young co-worker Tatjana (Nadja Uhl), who cannot believe anyone would leave
fabulous West Germany for grim and gray East Germany. Rita also starts an
affair with Jochen (Alexander Beyer), a university student working as a
lifeguard. He asks her to marry him, accompany him to Moscow and bear his
children in a proper petit-bourgeois manner befitting his good job. Though he
is a party member, he is shocked when Rita reveals her terrorist past. His
reaction is typical of the film’s amused contemplation of sterile bureaucratic
thinking on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The socialist dream died in the
East and was never born in the West, and Rita is caught in the middle with her
The Legend of Rita
is a rueful look at a recent piece of history that has been almost completely
forgotten. In bringing it to life, the filmmakers cast some doubts on the
extravagant claims made for the triumph of free-market capitalism.
Bravo, Brother !
The Coen brothers’ O
Brother, Where Art Thou? , directed by Joel Coen, produced by Ethan Coen and
written by both (and based upon Homer’s The
Odyssey ), raises some interesting and some not-so-interesting questions.
Among the latter is why the Coen brothers don’t go the route of Michael Powell
and Emeric Pressburger by joining in triple credits (i.e., “written, produced
and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen” or “Ethan and Joel Coen”-whoever wins the
coin toss). Contrary to what some people think, I have no problem with
collective auteurs, much less sibling auteurs.
Nor do I have a problem
with the Coen’s hommage to
Preston Sturges (1898-1959), not only with their title-lifted from his seminal
satire of Hollywood, Sullivan’s Travels
(1942)-but also with the throwaway scene in which a prison guard leads some chained
convicts into a moving-picture theater. You can’t go wrong with a parlay of
Homer and Preston Sturges.
More to the point, the Coen brothers have fashioned a saga
of Great Depression–era Mississippi that is by turns charming, festive,
tumultuous, tedious, sassy, unreal, surreal, commonsensical, nonsensical,
lyrical, relentlessly musical, more giggly
than full-throated funny, more picaresque than truly adventurous, more
jingly than truly poetic, more good-natured than warmhearted, and which has
more than a dash of opportunistic and anachronistic political correctness on
the race issue.
The ever nobly
intentioned and habitually underrated and underesteemed George Clooney heads a
solid cast of good sports wading into the hog wallow of riotous rusticity. John
Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson literally lose themselves in the loose-fitting
roles of Mr. Clooney’s dim-witted chain-gang sidekicks. Mr. Clooney’s
character, Everett, the would-be leader of men, is no blazing light bulb
This is the kind of movie
in which no one has much to lose, but lose it anyway three times over and still
manage to survive in one piece. As is usually the case with the Coen brothers,
there was no other 2000 movie like it, which makes it a poor bet for year-end
honors. People like to pay lip service to originality, but they usually ignore
it completely when the time comes to hand out prizes. The film could have been
a lot better and still not found favor with the award givers. It also could
have been a lot worse and still won grudging respect for the chances it took in
an industry that is terrified of free spirits roaming loose, majestically
impervious to focus groups.
The whole Babyface Nelson
(Michael Badalucco) eruption in the midst of the otherwise pastoral odyssey highlights the Coen brothers’ flair for visual irony in the way the
obstinate, real-life-looking bystanders stare down the noisy wrongdoing
firecrackers in their midst as just part of their parade. There is a lot of the
eternal hick in the Coen brothers, and it often pops up on the screen when you
least expect it. Feisty Holly Hunter as Penny is a case in point, with her
comically large brood and her hard-headed approach to matrimony.
One can take the Coen brand of skewered narrative or leave
it alone. I choose to rejoice that they are around to enliven a movie scene
that currently needs enlivening. This is not to say, however, that O Brother, Where Art Thou? can belatedly
crash my 2000 10-best list, but it is entertaining enough to earn an honored
place among the runners-up.
And how does O Brother
rank vis-à-vis the rest of the Coen oeuvre ?
It is superior to Barton Fink (1991)
and the Hudsucker Proxy (1994), on a
par with Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987) and The Big Lebowski (1998), and decidedly
inferior to Miller’s Crossing (1990)
and Fargo (1996)-which is to say, not
bad. Try to catch it if you haven’t already.
A Chocolat I Can Resist
Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat ,
from a screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by Joanne Harris,
had aroused very mixed opinions long before I saw it for myself. What took me
so long? Perhaps I was sure I wouldn’t like it. Perhaps I was reluctant to
confess that Juliette Binoche doesn’t turn me on, particularly since she has
become so bilingually prominent. On the other hand, chocolate itself has always
ranked high in my array of addictions, but it is more the fact and taste of
chocolate than the idea of chocolate that has enslaved my mind and palate.
Indeed, an unbridled mania for chocolate would lead to the deadly sin of
gluttony, if one were at all religiously inclined with a full complement of
Now that I have seen Chocolat ,
I can honestly say that I neither loved it nor hated it. Let us say instead
that I found it too facile in its secular objections to the repressions of
religion. Even as a fable, it seemed too easy an invocation of liberation
doctrine when the filmmakers are clearly playing with a stacked deck.
Hence, we are introduced to the French village of
Lansquenet, where life has supposedly not changed for the last 100 years,
thereby making the village a citadel of dullness and conformity jealously
guarded by the local nobleman, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). One night,
the north wind blows two strangers into town, Vianne (Ms. Binoche) and her
daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol). Vianne opens a chocolaterie in an empty
shop rented from Armande Voizin (Judi Dench), the foul-mouthed matriarch of the
town who later becomes Vianne’s strongest supporter against the anti-chocolate
intrigues of the Comte de Reynaud.
As time goes on, Vianne
introduces chocolate to the villagers as an aphrodisiac for non-performing
marriages and halting courtships. She gives shelter and employment to a
battered wife, Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin), and helps drive off Josephine’s
abusive husband, Serge Muscat (Peter Stormare), when he tries to forcibly
return his wife to her home. Josephine stays on at the shop despite the Comte’s
pleas for a reconciliation for the sake of the holy institution of marriage.
A band of Gypsies led by
Roux (Johnny Depp) then invades the village to provide the final test of
liberal tolerance in the film, and to provide Vianne with a romantic partner.
Everything works out in the end for everyone except the abusive husband, who is
driven from the town after he sets fire to the Gypsy boat. The Comte sees the
error of his ways in an orgy of chocolate, and the priest preaches a sermon of
acceptance. It is all very convenient and predictable, but so unlike Gabriel
Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987)-in
which gourmet food is used not as a magic potion, but as the sacred offering of
a French refugee to the two elderly and religious Danish spinsters who have
given her shelter.