The Legend of Rita (2000)
Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Writer: Wolfgang Kohlhaase and Volker Schlöndorff
Cinematographer: Andreas Höfer
Producer: Arthur Hofer, Emmo Lempert, and Friedrich-Carl Wachs
by Jon Cvack
A strange washing over moment in our nation’s history was the rise of left-wing terrorism throughout the 70s with groups like the Weather Underground in the United States or Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany, inspiring such narratives as Sydney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988) Best Foreign Film Nominee The Baader Meinhof Complex (2009). While the Weather Underground never killed anyone through their bombings, the RAF murdered 34 people. It’s hard to fathom domestic political terrorism in the states today, not to say Mass Shootings can’t be connected to the idea or to discount Oklahoma City, but to imagine bombs being planted on a regular basis by an underground militia is a bizarre concept; something I imagine might receive significantly more action from the right than our current domestic terrorism issue at hand (I’m writing this a couple of weeks after the El Paso shooting).
When hearing these stories I often try to think what it’d take for me to become weaponized; to turn my politics into violent action in order to prove a point that I hold dear. I already find extremism frightening when it comes in the form of words and tiki torches, let alone the rise in white supremacist attacks and promotion. While home for Christmas, my mother received a cryptic letter looking like it was written by a four-year-old. She thought it was funny and I smiled until she opened it and discovered a flyer for a KKK organization in Indiana. How they got our address is creepy enough, and then I see on Facebook that this stuff is floating all over the Midwest. Both far extremes contain hate in their hearts; where at a certain point it doesn’t matter whether it’s because of the color of a person’s skin or because of that person’s hate that the other believes murder is justifiable. I always wonder at what point such a shift occurs, knowing it exceeds even the wildest, most intense and heated political debates and toward direct, irrational action. What Volker Schlöndorff’s film asks is what does someone do after all of the mayhem?
The Legend of the Rita involves Red Army Faction terrorist Rita Vogt (Bibiana Beglau) who carries out a series of bank robberies, kidnappings, and guerilla attacks in West Germany to continue the fight against capitalism. The group has been together for a while, going so far as to break Rita’s boyfriend out of prison, escaping to East Germany where they meet their benefactors who feel as though they’re battling Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the change is slow, if not irrelevant, and Rita knows that the cause is dying. They either can continue to keep fighting, living a perpetual nomadic existence and hope they’re never caught, or give up and try and reintegrate into society.
Having entered into my thirties, I’ve reached a strange crossroads in which I feel the idealism of my youth, in which I believed anything was possible both politically and professionally, has now faded a bit. The dream isn’t completely dead, but there is a demand to accept that there’s a very good chance my life will settle with the majority; the dreams of writing and directing remain, but I also know that to continue the pursuit means giving up what could potentially have devastating consequences in the future. I’ve given up seeing my parents and sister more than once a year; a good-paying job with benefits and that could help with retirement; and a life that might possess more opportunity to create memories through travel and adventure. I don’t mind the decision. I’d be a liar if I said it doesn’t cross my mind on a daily basis that maybe I should go get a regular job in order to provide for those other things that I’ve given up for the last seven years. I’m giving myself a decade to see where I get, though in full honesty I don’t feel like I’m all that close. And I’m sure that’s how many people feel. Some never trying at all, others giving it a year or two, some going longer. Not everyone can actualize their dreams as there are simply too few spots and too many people. Beyond the immorality, I understand committing yourself fully to something in the hope that it could result in something grander and then having to accept that it likely will not happen.
In the case of Rita, it was seeing West Germany gain the upper hand as authorities close in on their organization. She volunteers to go back to East Germany, taking up the very occupation she despises in the capitalist system: working in a factory, operating as a cog in the machine, completing the same menials task for eight hours a day, making hardly enough to buy the booze that will help her forget the monotony. She befriends an alcoholic Tatjana (Nadja Uhl) whose mind has been rotted by the repetition. The two eventually fall in love until an old lover is killed and makes the news.
She takes up another identity at a state daycare center where she meets a graduate student and pro-communist Jochen Pettka (Alexander Beyer). During a trip to the Soviet Union Rita meets a past RAF member who, similar to the Tatjana, is struggling under the commaunist rule. Quickly things start to fall apart, as the West Germany authorities work with the East Germans to find the terrorists; leaving them vulnerable in the land they were fighting for and Rita ultimately doomed.
In Goodbye, Lenin! (2003) the filmmakers show a pair of siblings that try to save their communist mother from the oppressive Soviet regime by creating an alternative communist world in West Germany; essentially convincing her that she was still living under the state. It was one of the first films that demonstrated political relativism to me and the ways in which anyone desperate or impressionable enough can remain loyal to the most dangerous ideas. In the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares (2004), the filmmakers show how religious extremism in any form can demand blind and dangerous obedience, whether on the Christian or Islamic Right.
On Wikipedia, a user made an interesting editorial that Rita never despises the East German system; that regardless of her friends and loved ones who were struggling, she couldn’t accept that it was the better option against capitalism; and she was willing to die for that idea. While the film does a pretty good job of demonstrating the inner struggle of holding on to the end of a rope, it never really demonstrates why her loyalty remains so strong. Then again, what reason could there possibly be, other than providing some bizarre sense of purpose?
In a time like this, when political tribalism is reaching an all-time, The Legend of Rita is a gripping example of where this form of blind obedience can lead; not just to the deaths, but to the slow decay of someone who’s so reluctant to work with others in order to try and create something better; in which the fear of change leads to doom.
BELOW: Slim pickings on the YouTube, so here's a trailer
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