Volker Schlöndorff’s film, The Legend of Rita has many virtues, not the least of them being a wonderfully watchable leading lady in Bibiana Beglau. She is a sort of Communist version of Betjeman’s wonderful tennis girls of suburban England: beautiful, strong-limbed, confident and somehow both terrifying and lovable at the same time. She plays the eponymous Rita, a West German terrorist who flees, with her accomplices, to East Germany during the 1970s and is allowed to remain there so long as she assumes a new identity—this in order that the Communist authorities can maintain plausible deniability that they are harboring a terrorist suspect in violation of international agreements they have signed.
Rita is both nature’s most awesome work and a natural true-believer. “You have to hate the world’s misery to love its beauty” she says, and she believes with all her heart that by robbing banks and shooting cops who are agents of capitalist oppression, or assisting in the armed struggle in Angola or Mozambique as she also offers to do, she is helping to bring a new and better world into existence. Of course in East Germany, the nearest thing she can find in actual existence to the world she would create, she is regarded as hopelessly naïve—not only by the ordinary people, who want nothing more than to get to the West and have what she voluntarily gave up but even by the Communist authorities. Rita observes that it is “too bad outsiders only see the Wall.”
Her East German handler murmurs: “Insiders see the wall too.”
One of the best things about the film is the nuance with which this obviously corrupt, obviously mendacious Soviet-sponsored leadership is portrayed, particularly in the person of Rita’s contact, who calls himself Erwin (Martin Wuttke). The willingness of Erwin and the Comrade General, his boss, to keep providing Rita with new identities, and to protect her so far as possible from exposure or extradition is of no benefit to themselves and may prove a serious embarrassment to them if it ever comes out. Yet they do it as a kind of tribute to their own long-defunct idealism. Protecting Rita and making up new “legends” to go with her new identities is as near as they get to reaffirming that the otherwise merely oppressive apparatus of state power is actually good for something, and that their own lives are not wasted.
Rita’s idealism, by contrast, is not a rueful afterthought but her very essence and therefore, it seems, impenetrable to reality. Though she joined the terrorists because of a crush on their leader, she has become more dedicated than any of them. They are willing to risk their lives (and ultimately to die) for their illusions, but she does something that is in a way even harder by going among the economically crushed and politically oppressed people of East Germany, people who have to walled in to keep them from leaving at any cost, and telling them that they should be proud to be part of such a noble experiment.
If Rita had been allowed to continue in such a state of Candide-like innocence, the film might have made a decent comedy. But in its most memorable scene she is vouchsafed just a glimpse of the abyss of error into which she has sunk—not enough to open her eyes for good but enough, perhaps, to make her despair. On a workers’ outing to the Baltic coast, she meets a handsome lifeguard called Jochen (Alexander Beyer) and falls in love. She becomes pregnant and Jochen asks her to move with him to the Soviet Union where he has been offered an excellent job in an enclave of the scientific nomenklatura. They can marry and she can devote herself to raising their child.
Rita knows that the East German authorities cannot allow her to leave the country, and she asks Jochen while he is in the bathtub whether he has to go to Russia, if he wouldn’t still marry her and stay in East Germany. He is uncomprehending. “That’s why we’re marrying,” he says.
So Rita takes a deep breath and tells him everything: “Here’s who the mother is. I’m here in this country under an assumed name in a conspiracy with the powers that be. I’m wanted in the West for terrorism.
Long pause. “And are you a terrorist?” asks Jochen.
“Yes. I was,” replies Rita.
“Terrorists are idiots who kill innocent people,” says Jochen.
“Yeah. I did that.”
Suddenly Jochen is struck by a realization. “But you can’t tell me that,” he says, gingerly getting out of the tub, covering himself with a towel and backing away from her. “I’m not supposed to know.” Then, when he realizes that she was expecting a different response, he finally answers her question. “Yeah,” he says. “I have to go.”
Does Rita just for a moment see that for all the power of ideology it cannot wipe out the authentic human response to her past? If so, she doesn’t let us see it. But what we do see, not for the first time, is the extent to which the revolutionary (or pseudo-revolutionary) spirit of the 1960s and 70s was responsible for the devastation of our late century culture. Congratulations to Schlöndorff for catching the spirit of the age as it really was better than almost anybody.