films and documentaries The Legend of Rita

This is an excellent film. Schlöndorff continues his fascination with the Baader-Meinhof/RAF era with this film telling the story of a group member who goes into hiding in East Germany during the 1980s. The movie is a fictionalized composite of many characters and incidents; it never refers to the group as the “Baader-Meinhof Gang” or the “Red Army Faction”. But the film is a highly accurate accounting of the types of people and incidents of the era.

It opens with Rita (actually a fictional name she is later given to conceal her past) and other members helping to break a group leader out of prison, followed by life on the run in Germany and France. Finally Rita and other members slip into the Democratic Republic, where they live out their lives in the anonymity of that countries grand socialist experiment. Idealistic Rita is treated with contempt and derision by many of her new co-workers, who cannot believe that she so blindly supports the East German state. [spoiler alert!] a co-worker realizes that she is in fact a former terrorist, and Rita is moved to another job in another city. At the point when her life seems to be coming together, East Germany is falling apart. Rita again goes on the run from West German authorities; she is killed as she runs a roadblock. [end spoilers!]

Much of the film is accurate: As if the world needed more damning proof of the evil corruptive nature of the East German state of the 1980s, East Germany did in fact take into hiding 11 former Red Army Faction members. Stasi officials even provided training (including Rocket Propelled Grenade training) to several of the members who returned to West Germany to commit more terrorist acts. The film was received poorly among many in the former East Germany who felt that the film took too many digs at easy targets like Trabant cars, glum workplaces, and glum workers.

Though I didn’t live in East Germany, I think the film is reasonably accurate and fair on East Germany; the negative comments are probably the inevitable wincing of people that are not far enough removed from the time period. Schlöndorff’s commentary track on the DVD is absolutely first-rate, and offers incredibly rich detail and historical background.

The English translation of the German title is the excellent “The Silence Before the Shot.” For whatever reason, the American distributors chose instead to call the film the infinitely dumber “The Legend of Rita,” continuing a tradition of taking interesting German titles and turning them into lame English titles.