Sifting Through Decades of Guilt and Pieces of the Berlin Wall

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

social reform.

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

ideals intact.

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

himself.

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

guilt mechanisms.

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.