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COUP DE GRACE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Margarethe von Trotta, Matthias Habich, Rüdiger Kirschstein, Valeska Gert, Mathieu Carrière
Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Audio: German/French Dolby Digital Mono 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, anamorphic widescreen 1.77:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: interview with Schlöndorff and von Trotta
Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: May 27, 2003

"Why do women always fall in love with men who are not meant for them?"

Film *** 1/2

Once 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.

In 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 Desire).

Volker 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.

Coup de Grâce 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 adaptation.

Originally, 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.

For 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.

Coup de Grâce 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.

As 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).

Sophie 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.

One 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.

Sophie's 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.

Love, 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.

The 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.

Inevitably, 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.

Coup 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.

Video *** 1/2

Simply 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.

The 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!

Audio ***

This 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.

Composer 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.

Features ** 1/2

There 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.

Summary:

Volker Schlöndorff's Coup de Grâce is a somewhat somber tale of repressed sexuality and passion.  Set in the turmoil of civil war, it is a beautiful film to behold, with bold black & white photography and a simple but thought-provoking story.  Criterion has crafted a fine DVD for this fine film, so fans of European or German cinema will certainly want to give this disc a spin!