Coup De Grace
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Latvia, 1919: the end of the Russian Civil War. An aristocratic young woman (brilliantly played by Margarethe von Trotta) becomes involved with a sexually repressed Prussian soldier. When she is rejected by her love, the young woman is sent into a downward spiral of psychosexual depression, promiscuity, and revolutionary collaboration. A startling tale of heartbreak and violence set against the backdrop of bloody revolution, Volker Schondorff's Coup de grace is a powerful film that explores the interrelation of private passion and political commitment.
Passion and politics collide with tragically bleak results in Le Coup de Grace. Dedicating his film to French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum) emulates Melville's fascination with themes of war, adapting (with his wife and star, Margarethe von Trotta) the novel Der Fangschuß by Marguerite Yourcenar, set in Latvia in 1919 after the end of World War I. While sporadic fighting continues in the Baltic states, naive countess Sophie (von Trotta) seals her fate by falling in love with Erich (Matthias Habich), a Prussian soldier who secretly desires Sophie's brother (in one of several vaguely handled subplots). She retaliates by supporting the Communists and, when captured, demands that Erich be her executioner. Like the repressed emotions of its characters, the drama's power is nearly subdued by Schlondorff's murky ambiguity; it helps to be familiar with the film's historical context, but Le Coup de Grace is still a worthy companion to Schlöndorff's The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, and a hauntingly atmospheric tale of wartime self-destruction. --Jeff Shannon
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Sophie's frustration over her inability to interest Erich in her as a lover prompts her to develop casual sexual relationships with other members of the German officer corps. Erich has contempt for Sophie and actually slaps her at a Christmas party when she becomes too familiar with a fellow officer. Viewers are unlikely to see a more complicated love story than Le Coup de Grace. Without giving away the ending, the title of the film describes well both the end of the war for the Germans and the end of the affair of Sophie and Erich.
The war between the Germans and Russian partisans is as confusing as the love story of Sophie and Erich. We are never told why the Germans are in this small village in Latvia and we are never certain who the enemy is, other than Russian communist partisans. The actual battle sequences are confusing, as is perhaps appropriate in a partisan operation. We do know that the Germans are finally ordered to leave Latvia and it is at the end of the film that the most graphic battle sequences take place.
Le Coup de Grace was filmed in black and white and this seems appropriate for this dark and somber tragedy. The performances are uniformly excellent, particulary Sophie, played by Margarethe von Trotta. The director, Volker Schlondorff seemed unable to coordinate the action in this complex story. Additionally, the pace is often painfully slow. If that was Schlondorff's intention, he has succeeded. I recommend this film with the reservations noted.
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The cinematography is of the very highest order and the thing that I continue to be impressed by and that lingers in my brain even a day and a half after I watched the film. The other impressive thing about this film is the acting and particularly the performance by Margarethe von Totta who plays Sophie. Since their parents are dead and since Konrad has been away it has fallen on Sophie's shoulders to keep the estate together but we soon find out that the troops that have been stationed at the house have not always treated her with much respect. So when Konrad returns with Erich it is immediately apparent that she feels a great sense of relief that she will no longer have to live unprotected in her home which has been appropriated by officers and now even resembles an officers club or worse, a barracks. It is also obvious that Sophie still holds a flame for Erich who was both Konrad's and her own boyhood friend. But Erich is a complex creature suffering his own wartime wounds and while both Konrad and Sophie (whose estate remains relatively intact) realize that a new age is dawning in Europe, Erich (whose family estate has already been obliterated by war) still clings to those old world order ideals like duty & asceticism as well to the the old hierarchy that preserves those clear social markers that the new world seeks to obliterate. Even though it is Konrad's house, its is Erich who lords it over the rest of the troops and servants; he clings to the war because only so long as the war lingers on will his link with the old world and its anachronistic ideals be preserved. Erich sees himself as the prince of the castle and even though Sophie seems to realize that after the war there will be no more princes and no more castles, and even though her politics favor this transformation of old world to new, she still finds herself irresistably drawn to this old world relic. Perhaps she is drawn to him because he reminds her of the past and is her only link to a time when she felt that her life was rooted and her world secure. But the only desire Erich feels is for Konrad who he imagines to be a Knight like himself--even though, alas, each time we see Konrad he seems to wither away further and further and not so much from his own war wounds as from the awareness of his own insignificance. It is a doomed aristocratic lover's triangle and what they all share is the common fate that none of their desires will ever be fulfilled. It is perhaps no fault of their own that they happen to be aristocrats in a time when aristocrats are rapidly becoming obsolete and are even targeted for being what they are, but their inability to adapt also, at times anyway, appears to be a personal failure for these old world aristocrats simply refuse to function in a world that follows no reliable patterns or set codes of behavoir.
The entire aesthetic of the film seems designed to illustrate the disconnect between each of the respective aristocrat's anachronsitic world views and reality. Again, it is not surprising that Schlondorff dedicated the film to Jean-Pierre Melville as it feels like an early Melville film in the way that it combines two seemingly disparate elements-- a classically, almost clinically, objective lens framing an almost faerytale like trio of privileged aristocrats lost in their own subjective relation to people and things. (I'm thinking here of Le Silence de la Mer & Les Enfants Terribles.) Schlondorff, like Melville before him, is brilliant at showing how each of his characters fail to connect with the outside world and how each of them are lost in their fantasy of what the world should be or once was. Erich still wants to live like a Teutonic Knight and the war allows him to foster that fantasy; Konrad is lost in an equally juvenile fantasy as he believes, or at least entertains the illusion for a short while, that once the war is over the new lords of the world will be artists and poets; but Sophie is perhaps the most tragic of the three because though she does not believe in the old order anymore, she also seems incapable of mustering any new belief in anything or allowing herself even the meagerest of new world illusions to replace the richness of the old world ones. Unlike the men she is incapable of self-deception. Finally, unlike her brother who simply fades out of life without a fight, she at least has the dignity of lucidity and leaves the world knowing full well that for her there is no life in this new world and that extinction is the only fate available to her. Margarethe von Trotta's deeply nuanced performance as the multi-faceted (victimized, hysterical, needy, seductive, vengeful, idealistic, reckless, nihilistic, resigned...) Sophie is unforgettable.
The final irony is that Erich, in a last and futile attempt to preserve the flame of a dying world, is the one who deals the final blow that ends that world forever.
It is set towards the beginning of the 20th century at a time when the world was convulsed with KIngs and Queens and those that profited thereby fighting off change; when Nationalism had poisoned the minds of millions; when revolution and world war had laid waste a generation of European men.
The film is, I suppose a love story but it has as ONE major theme among a number the conflict between the world of men and the world of women - not just reason versus feeling but the whole panoply of honour, action, pride, duty, patriotism, class that bedevils many men and which blinds them to life.
I must add, that the final moments of the film, will remain with me forever. Without disclosing that ending, the final moments include a train, filled with soldiers trundling off in to the rest of the 20th century - and what havoc it did wreak!
But to conclude - there is, to use a cliche, something for many different types of movie goer to find in this film - man against man, violence, love, jealousy, the encroachment of change, idealism, politics, war - read at a simple or complex level. One fascinating journey is Sophie's, which in itself, is a rich one.
A brilliant film.
When I watched Coup de Grace (Der Fangschuss, 1978), a beautifully presented Criterion release, I didn't see the link to the other Schlondorff films. Coup de Grace is about the end of the Russian Civil War in 1919 Latvia. In a fascinating interview with Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta, the leading actress in Coup de Grace, they both explain in fluent French that many of the combatants returned to Germany to found the Nazi party.
Schlondorff worked as an assistant to many French directors in the early 1960s, including Louis Malle, Alain Resnais and Jean-Pierre Melville, to whom Coup de Grace is dedicated, and is a leader of the New German Cinema. The films listed in this review only scratch the surface. There are dozens of excellent Schlondorff films yet to be discovered.
To the reviewer who wants to know why the Germans were there; most of the Baltic States (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania) had large german populatiosn (most cities had German speaking majorities). In fact cities like Memel(Klapadia) and Riga were founded by Germans in the 1200 and 1300's under control of the Teutonic Knights. Even when muh of the area came under the Tsar's rule, the elite of the region remained the German noble and aristocrats. This film depicts the beginning of the end of this era after WWI when these areas gained independence from Russia. It came to a much sadder and bloodier end at the end of WWII when most Germans were expelled or murdered by the Soviets.
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