Saturday, May 14, 2011

COUP DE GRACE (Der Fangschuss, 1976)

Here's a period piece in German, set in the 1910s, and shot in black and white. I couldn't help but be reminded of Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, but for people more familiar with German cinema of the 1970s, Haneke's film was probably reminiscent of Der Fangschuss. Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Marguerite Yourcenar's novel has the same stark atmosphere of superficial austerity belied by lurid goings-on, and unlike Haneke's movie, it has explosions. It's set in the war after the war, the international intervention against the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In the Baltic region it fell to defeated Germany to aid the "Whites" against the Reds, and this new fight brings a Germano-Russian soldier back to his family estate, where White troops are being billeted and Bolshevik shells are falling. Konrad (Rudiger Kirchstein) brings with him his war buddy Erich (Matthias Lobich), who catches the eye of Konrad's sister Sophie (Margarethe von Trotta, Schlondorff's wife and co-writer and a director herself). Sophie has stayed on in the danger zone for many reasons, and Erich's presence adds more. The odd thing about her attraction to the reactionary soldier is that Sophie is reputed to be a Bolshevik sympathizer. Odder still is her obsession with a man who proves steadfastly uninterested in her. If anything, he takes more interest in Konrad, which only infuriates Sophie into transgressive retaliation. She becomes an open Bolshevik, leaving the estate to take up arms with the Reds.

Sophie's politics are to be taken on faith, since she gets little opportunity and shows little inclination to state her views. It may well be that Yourcenar, Trotta and Schlondorff see her radicalization as more of a personal than a political thing. That's the conclusion I draw, at least, from her heightened militancy following Erich's repeated rebuffs. It seems more like a demand for Erich's attention, as is her flirting with subordinate soldiers. Her personal war with Erich reaches its ultimate resolution when she's captured. Refusing Erich's implicit offer of preferential treatment, she makes a demand in return. She wants him to execute her himself -- the Fangschuss of the title. I'm tempted to think the climactic act is intended symbolically as a coup de grace to the old regime of German gentry in the Baltics, if not to a generation already mortally ravaged by World War I.

Schlondorff employs just enough production values to make his low-level warfare convincing without turning his story needlessly into an epic. The film has impressive monochrome cinematography by Igor Luther and a typically elegiac score by Stanley Myers of Deer Hunter fame. Overall, however, the film left me cold. While I admit that it was meant coldly, I also felt that Sophie's story was historically irrelevant. I didn't get a real sense of how much she was a product of her time or social environment, or how representative of anything she was supposed to be. Perhaps she wasn't supposed to be representative, and we were simply meant to be fascinated or appalled by her obsession and its consequences. Trotta gives a decent performance in the role, but it's the sort of character who can easily end up without any audience sympathy and whose fate might well inspire a collective "so what?" regardless of Trotta and Schlondorff's intentions. Some scenes of her actually fighting or at least living with the Reds might have made a difference here. The closest we come to this is a sentimental scene near the end when she's managed to steal Erich's cigarette case during her interrogation and shares her swag with her fellow prisoners. I expected more engagement with this side of Sophie from filmmakers who make so much of their political engagement in the interviews included on the Criterion DVD. But Coup de Grace isn't quite engaged enough, nor, for a film dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville, thrilling enough to stand the test of time.


Sam Juliano said...

I completely agree with you highlighting Luther and Myers' work here Samuel. Both made superlative contributions. The film (obviously) bears similarities to Schondorff's THE LOST HONOR OF KATHERINA BLUM, but it's homage to Melvilel directly recalls in a cinematic sense both LA SILENCE DE LA MER and LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES. The issues you have with Sophie's story (Von Trotte of course is extraordinary) don't hold sway with me, though I can respect they're being broached. This film stands with teh aforementioned THE TIN DRUM and YOUNG TORLESS as Schlondorff's most compelling work.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I haven't seen either of those early Melvilles, so that may be why I miss the influence. For all I knew, the homage to Melville (for whom Schlondorff was an asst. dir. during the early Sixties) consisted of making the film in black and white. From Schlondorff himself I've only seen Michael Koolhaas and Death of a Salesman besides this but I remain interested in seeing more. Thanks for writing.

Portugal said...

This is a beautiful film about how a family must adjust once it has experienced a painful loss. this past week, a colleague of mine lost his only child, his daughter, in an accident. he and his wife will somehow have to adjust to living without her, being a pair instead of a three some. I dont know how they will do it - I cant imagine the journey they are on. This film is about that journey, one none of us would choose to take. This is what grace is gone is about: the family affected by loss is a dad, and his two daughters. They live in a struggling middle class life, without amenities, and mom is serving in Iraq. Dad was in the army too, but his eyesight became too bad and he was discharged. This is a patriotic couple - they met while both were serving in the army. he finds out his wife, grace, is killed in action. he has to tell his daughters, but he doesnt know how, because he cant imagine living without Grace...he takes his daughters on a road trip and along the way, the three adjust to life as a three some without mom.