Category Archives: Volker Schlondorff

Strike (2006)

 “Should the union president report me to the authorities?”

Strike is a fictionalized account of the contribution of one woman to the Polish Solidarity movement. When the film begins, it’s the 60s, and Agnieszka (Katharina Thalbach) works nights at the local Lenin shipyard to support herself and her small son. They live in a tiny cramped apartment, and life is a struggle. Agnieszka is a “heroine of labour” well respected by her fellow workmates and the bosses alike. When the film begins, she receives an award for exceeding work goals. The reward is a small television set, which she lugs home and turns on to the delight of her son and her neighbours.

strikeWhile Agnieszka is obviously a hard worker, the first indication that she’s also a freethinker occurs early in the film when the workers ask for a longer lunch break. The 30 minutes they are given isn’t long enough to make it to the canteen and back, but the bosses egregiously refuse the request for a longer break. At this point, Agnieszka steps up and organizes lunch for her fellow workers at the site so that everyone can eat. Seems reasonable enough, but this action irks the bosses and the lunch period is reluctantly extended.

Agnieszka is illiterate when the film begins, but as the film progresses, she learns to read in order to become a crane operator. This new position will allow her to work days and help with the care of her son. As a crane operator, she must work all day long without coming down from her crane, and this means she will have to urinate in a bottle inside the crane. She accepts all of this very matter-of-factly and without complaint. Much of the film concentrates on the horrendous working conditions at the shipyard (“They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”). Sloppy conditions combined with killer days and unattainable work goals lead to a horrendous accident in which many workers are killed. When the company rules that the workers were at fault, and uses this as an excuse to refuse to pay pensions (an action approved by the “so-called union”), Agnieszka goes to war against the bosses.

Strike does a good job of showing that the union bosses are in bed with the communist party. Union officials are not there to improve working conditions. Instead they concentrate on feathering their own nests while ensuring the passive cooperation of the workers. Agnieszka is portrayed as a remarkable, tenacious woman who refuses to bow to any ‘authority’ no matter the cost. The character of Agnieszka is based on the real life Anna Walentynowicz. Lech Walesa (Andrzej Chyra) appears here, but he’s shown to play a fairly minor role compared to Agnieszka. A few years after the formation of Solidarity, Anna Walentynowicz, critical of Walesa’s policies, left the Solidarity movement. The film hints at this, but does not explore this issue. In Polish with subtitles, Strike is from German director Volker Schlondorff. I’ve categorised this as Polish and German for obvious reasons.

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The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975)

 “Typically bourgeois novels.”

An introverted young German girl named Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) meets a man at a party. Unaware that he’s under police surveillance, she takes him home for the night. When the police raid her flat the next day, expecting to find Ludwig (Jurgen Prochnow), they discover that he’s slipped away. Since Katharina is now their only lead, they begin to pressure her about Ludwig’s whereabouts.

katharinaThe Lost Honor of Katharina Blum examines exactly what happens to a young woman whose privacy is ripped away by an unscrupulous journalist Werner Totges (Dieter Laser) who’s in cahoots with the police. Following leads given by the police, Totges invades every aspect of Katharina’s life–harassing her dying mother, interviewing a disgruntled ex-husband, and basically feeding her private information to anyone who cares to buy a paper. Katharina–who was nick-named ‘the Nun’, becomes the target of threatening and suggestive phone calls. Even the titles of her books come under scrutiny.

The film tracks how one young girl whose life squarely fits the norm, inadvertently transgresses. Once she is no longer the norm, and she’s seen to be acquainted, connected or possibly sympathetic to a terrorist, she’s vulnerable to the various power levels placed in society–neighbours, former friends, newspaper readers–all become the jurors of her morality–until she as effectively isolated from society as Ludwig. The film raises some interesting questions about journalistic ethics, but in these days of tabloid sensationalism, the film’s shock effect is numbed. Instead, the outrage remains the tainting of the reputations of Katharina’s relatives and employers–nice people who just try to stand by her. In spite of the fact that the film is a bit dated, it’s still relevant today–especially in light of the recent allegations of illegal wiretaps and surveillance currently being conducted by the Bush administration. The film is based on the novel by Heinrich Boll–a journalist who wrote an article in Der Spiegel questioning whether a bank robbery was really the work of the Red Army Faction. Boll suffered the consequences of his stance. The novel and the film are the results of his experiences and a criticism of the tabloid sensationalism tactics of the Springer Press. DVD extras include an interview with directors Volker Schlondorff and Margaretha von Trotta, excerpts from a documentary by Heinrich Boll, and an interview with the cinematographer. In German with English subtitles.

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Legend of Rita (2000)

 “To my liberation from the class enemy!”

ritaRita Vogt (Bibiana Beglau) is one member of a West German urban guerilla group (obviously meant to be the RAF) who springs comrade, Andrea (Harald Schrott) from jail. Several people are shot during the jailbreak, and the group goes on the lam to Paris. While in Paris, Rita kills a policeman, and the guerillas are once again on the run–this time they slip into East Germany with the help of Stasi officer Erwin Hull (Martin Wuttke) who befriended Rita when she was recognized upon entering East Berlin before. Since the heat is on the group, Erwin makes an offer–the fugitives can accept a new life–with new identities in East Germany, or they can be flown out to Beirut. While everyone else elects Beirut, Rita decides to stay in East Germany.

Rita assumes a new identity in East Germany, and her adjustment to her environment is at the heart of The Legend of Rita from director Volker Schlondorff. The plot places Rita in some interesting situations. Her first job, for example, is in a factory where she befriends Tatjana (Nadja Uhl). Tatjana loathes East Germany, and would love to live in the West. She can’t understand why Rita (now living under an assumed name) would give up Western freedoms and chose to live under Communist rule. In the meantime, Rita’s former rebelliousness against the state has simply disappeared, and she’s become a drone–speaking the party line and accepting whatever she’s told to do. When Rita’s new identity is threatened, she has little choice but to move on–leaving Tatjana and their budding lesbian affair.

The film fails to fulfill its promise, however, on several layers. Rita becomes a pawn for the Stasi–every move she makes is watched, and every conversation she has is taped. The film could have chosen to tackle some fascinating complex arguments–Rita’s ideology, for example, and the challenge she faces in either rejecting her beliefs or sticking to them in the face of such nauseating, dreary and threatening Orwellian bureaucracy. The plot shows Rita as mindlessly accepting what she is told to do–she doesn’t question her freedoms, and by making Rita a drone, she is a far less interesting character. Instead, the film concentrates on Rita’s two love interests. If you are expecting to discover something about the Red Army Faction here, keep looking. This is not really a film about the RAF.

Director Volker Schlondorff received a great deal of criticism from all sides for this film. At a press showing of the film, some booed and some applauded. There were those who thought his portrayal of the RAF was too ‘soft’ and others who thought he was too harsh. But the fact of the matter remains that Stasi files made public after the collapse of East Germany revealed that some members of the RAF were indeed given sanctuary by the GDR. In German with English subtitles.

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Circle of Deceit (1981)

  “Never stand still in Beirut.”

German journalist Georg Laschen (Bruno Ganz) leaves behind his troubled marriage for Beirut, Lebanon to cover the outbreak of civil war in 1975. He arrives in a hotel full of other foreign journalists who’ve become used to the odd mortar hitting the building. The hotel is located in “No Man’s Land”–a zone in between Christian and Muslim fighting factions. Laschen is calmly told that most of the fighting takes place at night, but that during the days, it’s fairly quiet. Shortly after Laschen’s arrival, the country explodes into civil war.

circleAs the danger intensifies, Laschen and his photographer, Hoffman (Jerzy Skolimowski) take to the streets and pass through the zones of various fighting factions. At each checkpoint, chaos reigns–people are summarily rounded up and executed, and the bodies of the victims burned to hide the carnage. Laschen and Hoffman pass unscathed through scenes of death and destruction, while those a few feet away are coldly murdered. Both men feel the elation of a facade of invulnerability, and they begin to take more risks. The film assumes a surreal element as fighters on all sides vacillate between wanting photos taken of their deeds and not wanting any evidence left behind. As insanity reigns in Beirut, entrepreneurs sell weapons to the highest bidders and rival papers bid on grisly photos.

Meanwhile, war is good business for the journalists fortunate enough to be on the spot. A party atmosphere reigns at the hotel, and as Hoffman notes to Laschen “we both feed our families from this kind of event.” Laschen begins his assignment with the agenda of recording whatever he sees, but he finds it increasingly difficult to remain emotionally apart from the atrocities taking place around him. He seeks out Ariana (Hanna Schygulla) a fellow German who has chosen to remain in Beirut

Directed by Volker Schlondorff, Circle of Deceit captures the beginning of an important piece of history–the Lebanese Civil War–while exploring the inhumanity of war–and those who provide coverage for the rest of the world. The voyeuristic element of the journalist’s job becomes a moral question for Laschen as he witnesses the carnage of Beirut. Circle of Deceit is in German, French and English with English subtitles.

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Le Coup de Grace (1976)

 “Perhaps I like lost causes.”

coup1German 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.

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