Love is a battlefield
In their song, "Life During Wartime," the brilliant band Talking Heads reeled off a riot act of agonies that befall a nation's citizenry when, all around them, the ego of politics is hell-bent on dividing and conquering. Existence in times of armed conflict is indeed a mix of the mundane, the manic, and the merciless. There are times when victory seems imminent and other instances where all hope is lost. In the middle is the everyday struggle to survive, with the added obstacle of the artillery shell or sniper fire to make the race of rats that much more challenging. The United States has been lucky; in the modern era, foreign invaders have never waged extended battle on our shores. Sure, we have fought each other over issues of slavery and sovereignty, but we have never had to resist the rockets of an opposing ideology hoping to convert us en masse. We have never had to wonder what it would be like to see bombing raids in the distance, or bear the indignity our having our homestead "hijacked" as an enemy headquarters. Thus has America's national ideal been forged into one of invincibility, of knowing there is never a battle it can't win. But the history of Europe and Asia is drenched in such humiliations and reconstructions. The idea of war raging just beyond the property line has been so prevalent there that it becomes a matter of personal heritage, as valid as the forgotten names on the family tree. Director Volker Schlondorff's stunning, devastating Coup de Grace is a study in the effects of combat, in this case the Russian Civil War of 1917-1919, on the lives of three childhood friends. In Schlondorff's bleak vision, living through this social, political, and human battle is no celebration, to paraphrase David Byrne.
Facts of the Case
Conrad and Erich are two officers in the German army, fighting the communist uprising in Latvia during the latter stages of the Russian Revolution. Taking a break from the fighting, they retreat to Conrad's family estate, Revel House, to regroup and rethink their next strategic steps. During the war, the home has become a haven for officers, servicemen, the wounded, and the dead. Lording over the manor from her sick bed is Aunt Praskovia, a mad hatter of a matriarch caught between death and delirium. Helping her run the household is Sophie, Conrad's unmarried sister. Erich and Conrad's arrival enlivens the estate. Talk of troop movements and house-to-house searches fills the hallways and banquet areas, and in Sophie's heart, there are the stirrings of love. The Revel children have known Erich since he was a boy, and all this time Sophie has carried a torch for him. Even as she nurses the wounded and secretly associates with rebel sympathizers, she is still enamored of her unrequited love.
But Erich will not reciprocate. Staunch in his service to country, and cold to the point of being abusive, he rejects Sophie's advances at every turn. This sends her into a spiral of self-destructive personal behavior. She sleeps with random soldiers in a shack outside the manor walls. She flaunts her ties to the communists even as said links threaten her with execution. She flirts with and gets engaged to officers in Erich's regiment. But in the end, all these acts prove futile. Fiancés die and sympathizers are rounded up and shot. Finally, at a Christmas party, Erich watches Sophie dance with all the other men in the home and this causes him to strike her publicly. Sophie sees it as a misguided sign of love, of his jealously at heart. At a late night rendezvous, she again confesses her love to Erich. He tells her to wait until he returns from the front and they will talk. But when he does return, Sophie learns a terrible secret about Erich that devastates her. She runs off and joins the resistance. Erich gathers up a small band of soldiers and heads back to Germany. At an ambush, he meets up with Sophie again. But the dynamic has changed, resulting in a devastating final confrontation between these old friends, unrequited lovers, and now diametrically opposed ideologues.
Not all the casualties of war exist on the field of battle. True, the best way we can measure the failure or the success of a campaign is to walk the muddy minefields and count the corpses as they lay motionless, like flesh statues commemorating the slow erosion toward/away from victory. And we all acknowledge that those bodies extend beyond their shallow graves to the families and friends affected by the loss. But what about those individuals for whom the war is a necessary but ancillary issue, something to catch updates on over breakfast or fret over as it stalls the commute for yet another late to work weekday? Like any grave entity of death, fighting has an ethereal effect on the areas surrounding the bloodshed. Even without seeing or experiencing the carnage first hand, its spirit floods the freeways and works its wounded presence into the pots and pans of the shacks and palaces nearby. From the time of the Titans to the nuclear cloud of modern technological combat, the human race on whole can sense where there is unrest around the planet. As a result, they feel the uneasy urge to arm and anger themselves.
In his 1976 film Coup de Grace, director Volker Schlondorff used the end of the Russian Revolution and the sleepy soon-to-be Soviet locale of Latvia to explore war's indirect destructive power. Concentrating on Sophie Revel and the dynamic between her, her brother Conrad, and his best friend Erich, it is a movie of despair and desire. A tale of troops as they return to the family homestead to regroup, it offers a rare glimpse of that oppressive fog, one that mars men's judgments, citizen's visions of duty, and one woman's need for physical and emotional love. As war is the end of life, death is the end of passion.
Coup de Grace paints it protagonists as elements of the revolt going on around them. Erich is the establishment, a man tied to a sense of obligation and honor so deeply that it fortifies the nature of his being. Erich will always fight, not only because he believes in his cause. He continues to campaign because, otherwise, the truth of his real temperament will step in and label him. Without giving anything away, Erich's personal "frailty," his macho "deficiency" parallels the character of the desperate hierarchy. At its core is always a fatal, fragile flaw. Sophie, on the other hand, is strong willed to the point of immobility. She is an obvious representation of the rebel class, of the group who wants the current regime toppled and is willing to pay any price to achieve the downfall. But Sophia too has a defect, an error in her judgment. She would be willing to give up the underground and the dissident meetings for understanding and love from the establishment. If it/Erich could just fulfill her needs (as divergent and confused as they appear to be), she would gladly settle down and let the status quo remain. But it's that unclear set of requisites that makes a meeting between the empowered and the disenfranchised so impossible. Sophia doesn't know what she wants, but is willing to die to achieve it. Erich understands the system he is protecting, but somehow, it too fails to complete his existence. And stuck in the middle like a pawn among the populace is Conrad. He is the one experiencing the true concept of life during wartime. As the rebels rage and the establishment implodes, he sits to the side and reads the reports. He feels none of the chaos, but in the end, the battles raging around him affect him as personally and profoundly. Like a nation waking up one morning to find it has been invaded or conquered, Conrad is the prize that both Sophia and Erich are fighting for. But neither fully understands why. And neither can ever really obtain their prize.
Coup de Grace, which translates from the French as, roughly, "The Final Act," is indeed a film about last steps. We are introduced to the character of Aunt Praskovia, a crazy cartoon clown of a woman who represents the decadent past in all its clueless animation. Hair cropped short like an asylum resident and mouth a black mask of mushy lips and chalk like teeth, she's the dying heart of the bourgeoisie, the Russia that housed the Czar. In her aged state, she can see that the interpersonal struggle between Sophia and Erich will lead in the last act to heartache and despair. We also have the small town at the center of the film, toppling as its citizenry is drained away by battle, injury, or disease. Sophia and Conrad have lived on the family estate their whole life, and it looms over the village like a titular, tyrannical head. But the war has too sapped the household of its power. The servants have left. It is a flophouse for deluded officers who believe in the ability to defeat the resistance. It even serves as a hospital for the broken and dying. It is moving toward its last days as a citadel of splendor and will soon see its fortunes lie in the archeology erasing rebel cause. Like Tara in Gone with the Wind, the Reval Estate is a symbol for why the war is being fought, and what individual citizens are willing to die for. As realized in the film, it's a cold, lonely mausoleum, sitting starkly against the leafless trees that dot the estate grounds. It houses all the hopes for the nation. It also waits to be pillaged and perhaps razed in the name of the worker.
At this moment is the true final confrontation for Erich and Sophie. Sophie is a woman who has spent much of her life escaping from the pain of men. She has never been married and suffered a brutal rape while her brother and Erich were in the fields of battle. She has become disconnected from emotion and seeks physical comforts from the troops, even if it is just a quick fuck in a field house. It is all a way of finding purpose and pleasure. But even the acts of wantonness leave her empty and withdrawn. So, naturally, upon his return from the front, her affection and protestations toward childhood love Erich become unbearable. Erich represents her last chance at being happy, of rediscovering life within the death and despair of war. And yet Sophie stumbles upon another "choice," if you will, one that can possibly fulfill her without exposing her most private personal pain. The rebellion casts its clarion call to the troubled young woman, teasing her with thoughts of conquest and equality. Nothing would make Sophie happier than to be on an even keel with the patriarchal bastards who have made her life a series of one-night stands, misguided affairs, and pointless engagements. To join the revolution would be empowering. The rebels will win; the inevitability is written in the face of every officer she flirts with. And the war has taken many of her men away from her, gents who promised to care and comfort her in what it turns out was their last gesture of humanity. And still, she pines for her blond Adonis, her unrequited love Erich. In the wounded eyes of dying passion he seems like a final, last chance for salvation.
For Erich, the end of the war is the final act to his life. An enigmatic figure so filled with secrets that he's developed a stone outer layer, his duty and command is all he has. He never once flinches from responsibility or in belief that the war is winnable. In many ways, he is the typical deluded officer, unable to snatch some manner of victory, either personal or professional, out of the abyss of defeat. As a figure of power, he is feared and occasionally mocked, as is often done to authority and control by those of nervous or anxious attitudes. But the truth is that Erich is the one person who will truly lose when the battles are finally over. Erich, as the establishment, is the ideal to be overthrown, the entity to be changed irrevocably. When the final body is counted and the last piece of artillery is removed from the fields of fire, everything that Erich stands for, that he has fought and lost for, is to be engulfed and spit out under a new system whose goal was to change him and his beliefs forever. Maybe this explains why, at his core, there is a hidden aspect to his personality, something that seems to go completely against the façade of manliness and valor he fights for. The moment we learn of Erich's truth in Coup de Grace, we also understand why he (like numerous aristocratic regimes) is destined to fall in the name of the public. Unlike Sophie, who flounders and finally locates a set of ideals to fight and die for, Erich has always been, at his center, a man lying to himself. He turns his back on his truth to create a new, deceptive persona. Even when given a chance to confess he cannot. The only reality is the professional, duty bound Erich. And it's this final denial of self, of his honest sexual emotions that seals his fate.
What director Schlondorff does so well in Coup de Grace is allow the editing and pace to tell as much of the story as the narrative itself. From the opening shot of two soldiers (Erich and Conrad) running through a barren winter landscape towing their horse, cinematically we, as well as the characters, are seeking sanctuary. We find it at the Revel Estate. There we experience a leisurely, sporadically eventful existence where attempts at recuperation and regrouping are met with occasional influxes of official business. There is still hope in the war at this time, a thought that if rewards are issued and rebels routed out and executed, the tide can turn in favor of the establishment. The scenes in the village and the estate have an everyday, life during strife, feeling. But as the establishment sees its resolve failing, the movie moves into a more circular, madcap mode. Events and scenes happen in a jarring juxtaposition: a body is brought in, prisoners are shot, an air raid threatens the Estate, a wild Christmas party ends in shame and disgust. By the finale, when it is clear that Russia will fall to the revolution, we have an almost linear, Schindler's List plotline, a story of one man versus the elements of war. But instead of trying to save his workforce, and indirectly his soul, Erich is trying to find something, anything that will salvage victory and save his courageous soul. Schlondorff walks us, step by step, through the final days of Erich's involvement in the conflict; from escaping the now hollow Revel Estate to a true narrative coup de grace, an executive execution decision that will affect everyone and their relationship to the events of 1917-19 forever. Schlondorff does a brilliant job with Coup de Grace. It is a harrowing film.
The actors required to essay these complicated roles deserve all the credit for finding the right tone and texture in their portrayals to hint at everything without giving away specifics. Margarathe Von Trotta is often sited for her genius in this film, and it goes without saying that she creates a creature of delicate, disjointed pain. Lost in her world of eccentric aunts (the infamous Valeska Gert creates a comic zombie, worthy of laughter and fear) and dead elitism, Margarathe's wide, expressive face, constantly shot in a medium to close-up by director Schlondorff, houses a world of empty joy and incredible need. Hers is truly a performance of the façade, of the eyes and mouth; little lights shining inside her pupils as she bares her soul, tiny tightness around the lips as her feelings are rejected. Equally good, in a kind of controlled evil, heartless fashion is Matthias Habich as Erich. There is never a wasted gesture in his acting arsenal, no time when he gives away his motives before taking action. His is obviously the less glamorous role, never given the manic flights of fancy that Margarathe's Sophie seems to live on daily. Yet his stern, fearsome presence creates the perfect penetrable entity, a persona ripe for revelations to bounce off of and reflect on. At any point, Matthias could tip his hand and ruin the entire understructure of the film, but he maintains the stoicism to the end, even during the final moments of decision and painful action. Along with Rudiger Kirschstein as the weak, wounded Conrad, our misguided ménages is complete. Framed in Schlondorff's artistic, skillful composition and given a monochrome melancholy by Igor Luther's amazing black and white photography, we are set up for a character study that is less about the people themselves, but the times and about the sides they champion.
For in the end, Coup de Grace is about the lasting sacrifices of war, about the losses not measured in body counts or lands lost. Some may argue that, in victory or defeat, the last step is the loss of innocence, of understanding what it requires to remain safe and secure in a world full of competing ideologies. Others could see the coup as the death of conviction (either figuratively or literally) as the horrendous actions associated with armed conflict make people look within and outside themselves to de and reconstruct their value and moral systems. But beyond personal passions or delusions of refuge, the ultimate forfeit is neutrality, the ability to stay uninvolved in the life and death around you. For Sophie, Erich, and Conrad, the war will require taking sides, of associating with the victor or the conquered. As a result, each is branded forever and pays the penalty that is mandated, be it death on the battlefield, the subversive life of a rebel, or heartless, passionless executioner. Even as they play little or no significant role in the rise or fall of communism/the monarchy, they are inescapably drawn to play out the roles written for them. Thus it is in war, where there are always heroes and villains, innocent victims and secret soldiers. The fascinating aspect of Coup de Grace is that, once given a human face, the horrors and atrocities of war become even more powerful. And personal. For Coup de Grace is not only about political or ideological victories and losses. It's about humans who, when required to act, will dispense with emotion and human connection for the sake being of the right side of the conflict. It is a disturbing work of subtle, raw power.
Roger Ebert, when championing the use of black and white, argues that there is an inherent sense of drama and importance in a monochrome presentation that eludes color. Well, after seeing the stunning, sumptuous image offered on this DVD by Criterion, one too is persuaded by the command and beauty of the simple contrast between light and dark. The image here is heartbreaking in its stark visual sweep and undeniable power. Individual shots of the Revel Estate sitting deep within a field of untouched snow; black stick trees cutting to gray horizon; the terrifying thud of a gray coated rebel as his bullet ridden body crashes into a drift of powder; all of this would be severely undermined by the use of color film. With Criterion's painstaking remastering of Coup de Grace, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is perfect. Aurally, the Dolby Digital Mono allows the German/French dialogue to resonate well. There is no need for some faux multi-channel "experience" since director Schlondorff uses music sparingly and usually just for a raucous effect. Thanks to the merging power of mono, the bedlam is allowed to wash over and through, not around, us. Accompanying the set is a four-page insert that discusses many of the historical and production aspects of the film. It discusses the novel from which the movie was based and the decisions in casting and location.
But the final, and unfortunately, sole extra from Criterion is an exceptional 45-minute interview with star Margarathe Von Trotta and director Schlondorff. Functioning as an in-depth explanation and dissertation on the film, both of these talented people discuss the making of this wonderful work from its less than solid start to its personally charged filming. Von Trotta and Schlondorff were involved romantically at the time and both explain how that highly charged sexual and emotional dynamic worked to make the movie better. Von Trotta is very much a diva and defines her work here are groundbreaking and monumental. Schlondorff is equally laudatory, if a little more grounded. He understands that no one but Von Trotta could play Sophie and he goes on to list his reasons why. Some of the most intriguing information to come out of the interviews is the various interpretations that they, as well as critics and scholars they site, have invented regarding the movie's story and ending. It's a revelation to learn that Erich was the novel's focal point and narrative drive. The decision to turn the tale into Sophie's is both genius and disingenuous. It heightens the passion and the sexual dynamics but it downplays Erich as anything other than a villain. Von Trotta and Schlondorff readily admit that decisions like this were made to try and reflect the politics of 1976. As a matter of fact, we learn that other members of the crew, from producer to cinematographer to editor, worked hard to keep the film grounded in the 1910s. Apparently the talented couple wanted to work in emotions and philosophies that were decidedly too modern for the story being told. While not a commentary track per se, it's hard to imagine any scene specific narrative adding more context or substance than this excellent feature does. If it has to be the sole bonus, Criterion made it a very good one indeed.
As the cliché goes, war is hell, but not many people look beyond the body parts and blood to see where the true levels of despair lie. Inside the surviving soldiers reside the dark memories of death and destruction. Inside the remaining officers there is a sense of duty completed and collapsed. Among the political and social figures, there is an odd euphoria of failure, a notion that no amount of diplomacy or strategy spared the carnage and casualty. And all around the perimeter like shards of shrapnel cast aside from a detonated mortar shell are the everyday people, the insignificant players in a game they never asked to be a part of. Sure, there is patriotism and a noble notion of never disrespecting your side's soldiery. But in reality, what does a winning side win? Is their victory truly clean, or does it come with remnants of hatred and pain? And what of the vanquished, of those who, no matter how misguided or mean spirited, have watched their carefully constructed house of ideological cards come crashing to the ground, only to be further reviled and vaporized by the victors? What do they get? The benefit of conquest? A new life as predetermined by another? In the end, all battle becomes an individualized struggle, between courage and corruption, fear and duty. The hell of war then is a private one, raging from the inside out. Victories are not measured in land gained so much as hearts destroyed. This human transformation is the final act of battle, the ultimate Coup de Grace. And like the powerful movie of the same name, it is a moving, devastating, mesmerizing and life changing experience.
Coup de Grace is considered a lost masterwork by this court and is acquitted of all charges. Criterion is censored for offering only one stellar example of bonus material, but is shown leniency by the court for the stunning visual and audio transfer, as well as the depth of the featurette.
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• Interview with Voker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta
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