Four young people rob a West German bank, shouting, “Property is theft!” to the startled citizens cashing their paychecks. Outside, one of the robbers Rita Vogt (Bibiana Beglau) dumps hundreds of the bank’s deutschmarks into the hat of a beggar. “The 1970s were our glory days,” Rita recalls in a voiceover. “We wanted to abolish injustice and the state along with it. Politics was war, all over the world.” But what’s a revolutionary to do after the war is called off due to a change in political mood and the death or imprisonment of many of its soldiers?
Rita, with the implied blessing of the Stasi state spy network, settles in East Germany under a new identity and works first in a textile factory, then at a summer camp. Rita doesn’t miss her outlaw days; she wasn’t in it for the excitement. She is a dedicated ideologue who loves East Germany because it has “less poverty and less wealth.” If the Berlin Wall had been built to keep West Germans out of the East, Rita would have tunneled her way to the communist state. But sometimes nations disintegrate faster than political beliefs. When the Wall falls, and East Germany with it, the West Germans now just the Germans want her to stand trial for killing a policeman. Who will help Rita escape now?
Screenwriter Wolfgang Kolhasse, who lived in East Germany, based the script on the exploits of Inge Viett, whose June 2nd Movement was an anarchist offshoot of the Marxist Red Army Faction. Viett sued the filmmakers for plagiarism, apparently believing that fictionalized biography is theft. Whatever the legal niceties, The Legend of Rita (whose original title translates as The Silence After the Shot) presents the volcanic changes in its protagonist’s life in a nuanced style that lets viewers choose their own sides. Director Volker Schlöndroff also made the 1975 The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, about a young woman who spends the night with a young man who doesn’t tell her he’s a wanted terror suspect; after he escapes she is arrested as his accomplice. Rita, who might be a female version of Katharina’s one-night stand, is made plausible and fascinating thanks to Beglau’s sinewy charisma.
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