In The Legend of Rita, Volker Schlöndorff means to probe the divided soul of postwar Germany after the Berlin Wall went up through the rise and fall of the West German anarchist group RAF. The group's subsidiary—known outside Germany as the Baader-Meinhof gang—managed to get in a whole lot of ideologically motivated carnage, much of it devolving upon innocent bystanders, before becoming the property of the East German intelligence agency Stasi, which tried simultaneously to disband the group and shelter those of its members who were left standing.
The first half-hour of The Legend of Rita is parsed as an action movie. Then the film veers sharply away from politics, a baffling departure for the director of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) and The Tin Drum(1979). Schlöndorff approaches his material here with the gingerly timidity of a man who can't fully commit to a shift in his views on that branch of the German left. Instead, he opts to put the proverbial human face on terrorism by telling the story of one of its members, a composite figure, presumably, called Rita Vogt (Bibiana Beglau), who senses the group's imminent collapse and, under the wing of a sympathetic Stasi apparatchik (Martin Wuttke), disappears into a new life as an upstanding East German proletarian.
The movie's eye-poppingly reductive, not to say condescending, thesis is that Rita is a tender, vulnerable soul who does whatever she does—from joining the group through an affair with its leader, to saving the bruised soul of a fellow worker at the East German factory where she works—for love. In fact, Rita seems to do little but fall in love, not least with the German Democratic Republic, where, amazingly, she fails to notice that just about everyone but she and her handler wants out of the dreary parsimony of life behind the Iron Curtain. The story of Rita's successive incarnations as an enthusiastic Communist, and her fall, symbolically timed to coincide with the fall of the Wall, is absorbing enough, due in large measure to Beglau's vibrant performance. Yet Rita seems to be a woman with little noticeable inner life, and absolutely no capacity for reflection on her deeply compromised past activities. So much so that you begin to feel that you're watching some earnest television drama more properly named I Was a Terrorist Love Junkie: The Rita Vogt Story.
The Legend of Rita was directed by Volker Schlöndorff; written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase and Schlöndorff; produced by Arthur Hofer and Emmo Lempert; and stars Bibiana Beglau and Martin Wuttke. Now playing at Nuart, Los Angeles.