“Terrorist” may now seem like too fierce a word to attach to a young and naive group of bank robbers, but back in the relatively innocent ’60s it was the epithet of choice for certain would-be revolutionaries. In The Legend of Rita, which begins in West Germany during that roiling decade, a young band of leftist radicals are acting out the results of being immersed in too much untested political theory. Less ruthless than dangerously idealistic, and with the same need for certitude that fuels religious zealots, these bumptious saviors have organized the world into warring camps of good and evil — they’ve got it all figured out — and their little thefts are seen as deadly blows against the evil capitalist system.
But if you’re going to wave guns around, a reality check is inevitable and a fatal shooting sends the group further underground. One of its members, Rita Vogt (Bibiana Beglau), ends up in Paris where, to avoid arrest, she shoots and kills a motorcycle cop. Now more desperate than ever, she turns to a Stasi (East German secret police) connection who helps her relocate in the East with a new identity, fictional past included — or “legend” in Stasi-speak. Here the former firebrand must toil with the rest of the proles and one waits for her inevitable disillusionment with the worker’s paradise to set in. But in the 20 years that follow — the film takes us up to the fall of the Berlin Wall — her most cherished beliefs, despite serious provocations, remain barely dented.
Rita was directed and co-scripted by Volker Schlondorff, who alternates between astute political films such as Coup de Grace (1977) and Circle of Deceit (1981), and ambitious literary adaptations such as The Tin Drum (1979) and Swann in Love (1984). He and his collaborator, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, tell Rita’s story with an impressive lack of polemical nudging. Things like this happened and it’s up to the viewer to decide what it all means.
The film is a testament to a certain kind of madness, saintliness and dreadful waste, one that’s wary of final versions of history. Or, as the closing legend reads: “That’s exactly how it was, more or less.”
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].