“Perhaps I like lost causes.”
German director Volker Schlondorff has a knack for realism when recreating almost forgotten slices of history. The film Le Coup de Grace based on the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar, is set in the Baltic States between the years 1919-20. WWI may be over, but the fighting continues for the Prussians and the Bolsheviks. When the story begins, Prussian officer Konrad de Reval (Rudiger Kirschstein) returns to Kratovice–the family castle in Latvia–accompanied by fellow soldier Erich von Lhomond (Matthias Habich). The castle serves as the ex-facto headquarters and stronghold for the Prussian army in the region, and Konrad’s sister, Countess Sophie de Reval (Margarethe von Trotta–director Schlondorff’s wife) lives there with an elderly aunt and various servants.
Sophie is immediately attracted to Erich, and while he initially encourages her attentions, he ultimately rejects her–claiming he prefers brief relationships with servants and prostitutes. Sophie accuses Konrad of being “incapable of passion”, and tells him “you cling so tightly to life.” Once rejected, Sophie engages in a series of self-destructive affairs with the accessible pool of various other officers stationed at the castle. Sophie’s flagrant flaunting of her affairs under Erich’s nose makes a joke out of his stiff personality and his attempts to impose disciple. It’s an unhealthy situation resulting in petty rivalries, jealous scenes and ultimately–betrayal. But is Sophie motivated by Erich’s rejection or by her sympathy and relationships with Bolsheviks?
Le Coup de Grace is–simply put–mesmerizing. All the repressed passion between Sophie and Erich is set against the bleak, frozen landscape. In contrast to the bleak terrain, the characters try to forget that death surrounds them by living in the moment–organizing parties, dancing and gathering mistletoe. One scene shows a line of soldiers trudging through the snow, and the next shot shows the same empty landscape–without the soldiers. This scene is the essence of this marvelous film–a final glimpse at the dying embers of the world of Teutonic knights. Criterion DVD extras include an extensive interview von Trotta and Schlondorff. Le Coup de Grace is in German with English subtitles.