COUP DE GRACE
Review by Ed Nguyen
Margarethe von Trotta, Matthias Habich, Rüdiger Kirschstein, Valeska Gert,
Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Audio: German/French Dolby Digital Mono 1.0
Video: Black & white, anamorphic widescreen 1.77:1
Features: interview with Schlöndorff and von Trotta
Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: May 27, 2003
do women always fall in love with men who are not meant for them?"
upon a silent time, German films represented the very pinnacle of artistic
expression and visual lyricism in world cinema. Such silent film masters as F.W. Murnau (Sunrise), G.W. Pabst (Pandora's
Box), and Fritz Lang (Metropolis)
were among the most talented directors of the day. However, after the early 1930's and the changing political
scene in Europe, the German film industry began a rapid decline.
By the conclusion of WWII, the once-proud German cinema had been reduced
to a ghostly shadow of its former self and would remain in a deep hibernation
for a very long time.
the 1970's, German cinema saw a gradual and exciting rebirth.
A new wave of young, daring German directors had emerged and was creating
some very impressive films. Among
them were such noteworthy directors as Werner Herzog (Nosferatu),
Rainer Fassbinder (The Marriage of Maria
Braun), and Wim Wenders (Wings of
Schlöndorff was also a distinctive part of this new German cinematic movement.
Originally an assistant under such French New Wave directors as Alain
Resnais and Louis Malle, Schlöndorff eventually started making feature films of
his own, beginning with Der Junge Törless
(1968). While his name may not be
immediately recognizable to many Western audiences, a number of his subsequent
films are. Western audiences may be
most familiar with Schlöndorff's mainstream efforts, such as Death of a Salesman (1985) with Dustin Hoffman, The
Handmaid's Tale (1990) with Natasha Richardson, or recently Palmetto
(1998) with Elisabeth Shue. However,
art house audiences will recall his earlier, more artistic endeavors, such as The
Last Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) or his most celebrated film, The
Tin Drum (1979), which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
Schlöndorff's 1976 film, Coup de
Grâce, belongs in this latter category.
was based upon the Marguerite Yourcenar's historical novel Der
Fangschuss. The novel recounted
the story of a love affair set upon the stage of the immediate post-WWI
environment in Europe. Schlöndorff
had first expressed interest in the novel during the production of Der Junge Törless. Years
later, in the mid-1970's, he would return again to the novel for a feature-film
the novel's central character had been Erich von Lhomond, a Prussian soldier
reminiscing over the memories of a distant war and a long-past romance.
In the film, Schlöndorff chose instead to make Erich's love interest,
Sophie von Reval, the main protagonist. Thus,
the anguish and uncertainty of the post-war era were seen through a female
perspective, a somewhat uncommon approach for a film of the war genre.
the role of Sophie, Schlöndorff turned to his long-time collaborator Margarethe
von Trotta. She had already
co-written or appeared in several of his films, including The Last Honor of Katharina Blum.
Schlöndorff felt that she was an ideal choice for Sophie, a
revolutionary-minded woman torn between her love for a soldier and her sympathy
for the Bolsheviks against whom he fought.
For the role of the soldier, Erich, Schlöndorff cast a young German
actor, Matthias Habich, who had impressed him in a television production.
Habich was also perfectly bilingual in German and French, as was von
Trotta, which Schlöndorff considered a good omen for the film.
was set in a time of warfare, but it was in essence a drama about a tragic
romance. Schlöndorff dedicated the
film to Jean-Pierre Melville, his early mentor and one of the major influences
upon the French New Wave directors. Indeed,
since Schlöndorff had also trained under Alain Resnais and Louis Malle, the
spirit of the French New Wave is discernible in several sequences from Coup de Grâce. The
film also shows traces of influence by early German Expressionism, with its
vivid and evocative black & white photography.
Schlöndorff even used a former silent era German actress (Valeska Gert,
a vet of such films as Pabst's The Joyless
Street) for the role of Sophie's Aunt Praskovia.
But in the end, Coup de Grâce was Schlöndorff's personal vision, a somewhat
quietly subversive film that challenged its viewers to determine for themselves
if the central conflict of the film is a passionate or political one.
Coup de Grâce commences, the year is
1919. It is a time of civil war.
The recent Bolshevik revolution in Russia has brought dire repercussions
onto the adjacent Baltic States. Everywhere,
the tides of changes have swept over the land, leaving turmoil and instability
in their wake. In this clash
between the old order and the new socialistic ideals, Konrad von Reval (Kirschstein)
and his comrade Erich (Habich) are military officers determined to defend
Konrad's homeland of Latvia against the Bolshevik insurgence.
Under the cover of night, they have secreted away to Konrad's home estate
of Kratovice. Therein, they are
warmly greeted by a small host of like-minded soldiers as well as Konrad's
sister, Sophie (von Trotta).
is a demure, young contessa who has some strong personal opinions but is at
first afraid to express herself or to act upon her feelings.
She has many friends in a nearby local village, many of whom are
Bolshevik sympathizers. Yet at the same time, Sophie is somewhat resentful of the
presence of so many strange soldiers settled in her family estate.
She is caught between two warring factions - the Nationalists and the
Bolsheviks. Into this mix arrives
the dashing and handsome Erich, who Sophie has long adored since childhood.
Erich initially appears pleased to be reacquainted with Sophie, remarking
at one point, "The day is not purer than your heart. Why shouldn't I trust you?"
His arrival slowly rekindles Sophie's passion for life and awakens her
from her complacency.
day, when they are alone, Sophie decides to reveal her deep-rooted love for
Erich. Curiously, his response is
an impassionate and hardly enthusiastic one.
Throughout the film, there will be an ambiguity surrounding Erich's
feelings for Sophie. Sometimes, he
is caring, and other times, he is indifferent.
In truth, Erich is emotionally inert and remote, drawing more pleasure
from the execution of prisoners or the chaos of battle than from the simple,
quiet moments alone with an affectionate woman. To the end, Erich is the consummate soldier, and his passion
for military protocol and procedure precludes his feelings for Sophie.
frustrations at Erich's ambivalence is eventually sublimated into other
endeavors. She embarks upon an
increasingly open path of promiscuity and revolutionary sympathy.
In a sense, she is defying Erich, daring him to react to her.
She mocks him at one point, asking if he is only interested in
"whores or farm maids." To
this, he replies, "if I needed a woman, you're the last one I would think
of." Nonetheless, they enter
into a reluctant relationship. Alone
with Sophie, Erich is usually reserved and distant.
In company or conflict, he is more apt to react emotionally yet not
always appropriately. In one
instance, during a holiday celebration, Sophie kisses Volkmar, a decent and
earnest young soldier who would marry Sophie if only she would have him, and
Erich responds violently.
as they say, is blind. Even when
Erich publicly humiliates her or spurns her, Sophie begs him to forgive her.
Most tellingly, their most personal scene occurs with a closed door
between them, as Erich asks Sophie to await his return from assignment.
Even in this intimate moment, there is a barrier between them. Erich and Sophie's relationship is an incomplete one, for
they are destined never to be truly happy together.
bleak land about them is almost a metaphorical representation of the turmoil in
their relationship. It is a
desolate world of empty snowscapes and barren fields.
By day, the approach of enemy biplanes harbors the deadly threat of
bombing raids. By night, the air is
haunted by the shrill sounds of distant, sporadic gunfire.
There is little peace, and the periods of calm are tenuous at best.
It is a war-ravaged, dying world, where soon the old traditions will be
crushed by the onset of the new Bolshevik ideal.
the conflict within the Baltic States will turn against the soldiers.
When they are forced to retreat, Erich will leave with them.
In this light, Sophie will ultimately be forced to choose between the two
paths of her heart's desires - her undying devotion to Erich on one hand and her
sympathies for the rebels on the other. Neither
path will lead to real happiness, and Sophie's eventual decision paves the way
for the film's sad conclusion.
de Grâce is
not an overt, dramatic soap opera like Gone
with the Wind, another romance set in wartime.
Much of this film's journey, including Sophie's transformation, is
internalized and only discreetly suggested.
Schlöndorff requires the active participation of the audience to fill in
the gaps. Though the storyline is a
relatively simple one, it possesses a deep resonance in its two central
characters' search for the true value of passion.
Coup de Grâce may be one of
Schlöndorff's early films, but in the end, it is one of his finest works.
incredible. Coup de Grâce looks practically brand new.
I have rarely seen a black & white film look this good on DVD.
Coup de Grâce is shown in
1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen, and comparisons between this new version and old
grayish clips of the same film (shown in the special feature documentary)
illustrate just what a wonderful job Criterion has done.
video has a minimal grace inherent to the source print, but the black &
white photography practically glows! Images
have wonderful contrast levels, from deep black to sparkling white.
The transfer shows amazing clarity and sharpness with many fine details.
I did not see any grossly obvious compression artifacts.
Furthermore, Criterion has cleaned up the picture so that there is hardly
any trace of dust or debris. Some
exceedingly rare blemishes remain in a frame or two, but all in all, this is a
fantastic effort by Criterion!
is a relatively older European film, so the audio is Dolby mono 1.0.
Criterion again has done a solid job here, cleaning up the audio and
removing any hisses or pops. Most
scenes are dialogue-driven, though there are scattered scenes of combat which do
tend to expose the absence on the soundtrack of a resonant low bass.
Let's just say your subwoofer will not be contributing to this film.
Nevertheless, the audio is quite fine and sounds sparkly-new.
Stanley Myers wrote the sparse, minimalist music. With the lyrical violin strains of its Bartók-like score,
this music captures the essence of the film's flawed romance as well as the
uncertainty of the wartime era. Coincidentally,
one of Myers' assistants for this film would later become a popular Hollywood
composer himself - Hans Zimmer.
is only one feature on the DVD, but it is a big one - a 43-minute interview
session with Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta.
They are filmed separately but offer a treasure trove of background
information on everything from the early influences on Schlöndorff's career, to
the historical context of and concept for Coup
de Grâce (novel and film), to the actors who would eventually appear in the
film. Schlöndorff presents many
insightful comments and interpretations - I particularly enjoyed his anecdote
about how the film's editor had banned him from the editing room after Schlöndorff
had butchered an early cut of his own film.
Most fascinating, though, is Schlöndorff's extended discussion
concerning the film's ambivalent but ultimately tragic conclusion.
Alert viewers may even notice that the ending shown in this documentary
is slightly different from the ending as seen in the film!
This subtle difference is explained by von Trotta.