Heroics and malice
Coup de Grace (Academy One) Germ Have (Hot Winds') (Phoenix, East Finchley) 'It's dangerous, walking between front lines,' a Prussian officer sternly tells Sophie, countess of Reval Castle in one of the wartorn Baltic states after the Bolshevik Revolution. The officer, Erich von Lhomond, commands a detachment of Free Corps volunteers, part mercenaries, part true defenders of the old aristocratic order, which is billeted in the once-elegant but now half-destroyed ancestral estate. Their position is hopeless. Encircled by local partigans, they are politically and spiritually isolated as well. The Allied governments are about to stab them in the back by recognising the Soviets — a coup de grace to their cause and, more profoundly, to the Teutonic feudalism that has held sway over the Baltic region since the thirteenth century.
By blood and upbringing, Sophie is identified with the besieged aristocracy. Her brother Konrad is Erich's lieutenant, and Sophie herself has fallen in love with the strangely aloof, sexually ambivalent detachment commander. But, partly as a result of her suffering throughout this long, grinding ward, and because she is a woman of generous sympathies, she also cherishes personal links to the local Bolsheviks plotting to destroy her class once and for all. After being rejected by Erich, Sophie — hitherto a privileged visitor on both sides, accepting pamphlets from the radical Jewish tailor in the 'village while promenading with Erich on his front-line inspection tours —commits herself to the dispossessed poor. She is captured while fighting with the Reds and — in a final scene which boldly apes the famous newsreel footage of the Vietnamese guerrilla shot at point-blank range by Saigon's police chief summarily executed, at her own request, by the man she adores, Erich.
Volker Schlondorff's Coup de Grace (AA certificate), a sombre, finely acted but somewhat muddled film, was financed by the commercial success of his The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, which also starred his wife Margarethe von Trotta, who collaborated on both scripts. She is a marvellous, moody Sophie, superb at catching the look of a woman struggling to minimise the psychic fracture caused by her split loyalties. Sophie is determined — even if it means betraying her brother and his comrades — to keep her attachment to life, to the new social forces stirring beneath the war-frozen earth. My problems with Coup de Grace stem less from her performance,
and that of a uniformly excellent cast, than from the director's failure to fully dramatise her shift in allegiance.
As a director, Schlondorff seems —like his heroine — to be something of a split personality himself. In Katharina Blum, for example, he attacked the right-wing Springer press and the police with a ferocity that borrowed no little from his enemies' arsenal of prejudices. Coup de Grace is much less simplistic. It is a serious attempt to explore the human contradictions within a few not unsympathetic members of a doomed class determined to die fighting rather than surrender not only its privileges but its élan, a peculiar mixture of cruel, unheeding arrogance and liberal cosmopolitanism. (Konrad, Sophie's brother, dreams of converting the castle, once the fighting is over, into a haven for writers and artists.)
In Sehlondorff's fondness for Sophie, Erich and Konrad, and his muted but obviously strong admiration for the last-stand gallantries of the Freikorps officers, there is also a kind of romantic endorsement of their values —which he then seems explicitly to reject by sending Sophie off to fight with the partisans.
1 haven't read the Marguerite Yourcenar novel on which the picture is based, and perhaps she also handles Sophie in 'long shot', as it were, while devoting her best energy to the brave, shabby men inside the castle. But there is a fuzziness, an emotional uncertainty, in Schlondorifs treatment of Sophie which contributes unduly to one's doubts about her character and her politics. Does she join the Reds because Erich, who may be in love with his childhood friend Konrad, has sexually rejected her, or out of conviction? The one scene showing Sophie taking pamphlets from the village tailor, who exhorts her to do more than just read about the struggle, is heavily outweighed by the scenes of stoical, fevered gaiety inside the artistos' fortress. Yet if Schlondorff had involved us more in Sophie's relationships with the rebels, he might have made more vividly comprehensible their suicidal dignity, their near-enjoyment of Gotterdammeru ng. I cannot completely dismiss the idea that Schlondorff, too, enjoys their heroics a little more than is absolutely necessary for the dramatic validity of his film.
That said, Coup de Grace is extremely effective, visually and emotionally. Shot in black and white, it is as uncompromisingly cold and unforgiving as its frozen terrain of shell-ploughed fields mottled by snowcovered burial crosses. Striving for austerity, it achieves an ambiguous curtness. The
effect, at times, is stunning.
Garm Hava, or 'Hot Winds' (A certificate) is also about someone walking between the front lines. It's a long, methodical Indian film — Hindustani dialogue with English subtitles —about the unhappy plight of Salim Mirza, a Muslim shoe manufacturer trapped by the 1947 Partition. While his co-religionists flee to the newlyborn Pakistan, Salim insists on staying behind in Hindu-dominated Agra because it's his home. An honest and pious man, he cannot believe that his old customers and neighbours will turn against him — but they do, both in bloody riots and in niggling little ways. Eventually he too packs up to go, but at the last minute jumps from his taxi and follows his son into a banner-waving demonstration of radical Hindus demanding bread and jobs. Come what may, he is weary of viewing the storm from afar; now he marches with the masses. I liked this picture less for its slightly tedious plot-line — 135 minutes of it taken from a short story — than for its throwaway asides on people's behaviour in the subcontinent. Unacknowledged malice at all levels of Indian society, caused in part by unquestioned male dictatorship over women, is the real motif. Brilliant if unconscious sociology, fair movie-making.