Mar 31, 2014

Coup de Grâce (1976)

After starting my recent obsession with Baal (1970) starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder, I felt it was about time I start watching more films directed by kraut master celluloid craftsman Volker Schlöndorff (Michael Kohlhaas - Der Rebell, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), with Coup de Grâce (1976) aka Der Fangschuß being the first film I decided to indulge in. Based on the 1939 novel of the same named written by Belgian-born French bisexual novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, Coup de Grâce was co-penned by and stars Schlöndorff’s then-wife Margarethe von Trotta and thus, as can be expected, features a glaring feminist leftist slant that is somewhat at odds with its source material. Indeed, while Yourcenar’s novel was intentionally apolitical and written from the perspective of a closested homosexual soldier named Erich von Lhomond, Schlöndorff’s Coup de Grâce treats the female character Sophie de Reval (not surprisingly played by von Trotta in all her degenerate blueblood glory)—a spoiled and salacious countess who becomes a Bolshevik because the German soldier she lives with is in love with her brother in what is ultimately a bitter and cold bizarre love triangle—is treated as a progressive woman and a true heroine. Although not politically correct nowadays, Coup de Grâce, like Schlöndorff’s other films Young Törless (1966) and The Tin Drum (1979), attempts to establish a dubious Reichian link between homosexuality and fascism/militarism, as if enjoying militaristic camaraderie and killing commies is a prerequisite for taking a dick in the ass. Set between 1919 and 1920 in Kratovice, Latvia, Coup de Grâce depicts the plague-like spreading of bolshevism across Eastern Europe and the destruction of the Baltic German aristocracy in a fashion that makes it clear that the writers and director have more sympathy for atheistic Asiatic hordes than their own ancestors. Indeed, a film that has the gall to depict a rather lecherous lady who betrays her friends and family and hook up with a Bolshevik Jewish intellectual and join the Reds against the waning Prussian aristocracy that she is also part of, Coup de Grâce is indubitably ethno-masochistic leftist swill, albeit strikingly stylized celluloid swill of the richly photographed black-and-white sort that reminds one that Schlöndorff has always been a master of his craft, but also a major moron when it comes to politics and history, as if he suffers from a sort of metaphysical Stockholm syndrome that has compelled him to spend his entire filmmaking career assembling Teutonic period pieces trashing his nation in tribute to his Franco-Jewish mentor Jean-Pierre Melville (of whom Coup de Grâce is not coincidentally dedicated to). A sort of ‘Teutonic Gone with the Wind’ (with a smidge of Doctor Zhivago thrown in for good measure) set at the end of a civilization about a hysterical woman who cannot have man she wants so she raises hell as an impotent and ultimately tragic last resort, Coup de Grâce is a bold and beautiful black-and-white with an aesthetic prowess comparable to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) yet with a one-dimensional thematic complexity (or lack thereof) akin to Spielberg’s epic agitprop piece Schindler’s List (1993). Indeed, had Coup de Grâce been more in the spirit of the great Baltic-German aristocrat Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, it might have be a masterpiece. 

 It is 1919 and the Bolshevik beast is beginning to spread like cancer into the Baltic, but thankfully some German Freikorps soldiers have landed there to protect a chateau that belongs to one of the soldier’s families. Indeed, the home is owned by the family of young Aryan aristocrat and unflinching patriot Konrad von Reval (Rüdiger Kirschstein), who has come back to protect his idealistic countess sister Sophie (Margarethe von Trotta) and eccentric old maid aunt Tante Praskovia (played by German Jewish cabaret performer Valeska Gert). Konrad has brought his childhood best friend and fellow aristocrat Erich von Lhomond (played by Matthias Habich, who would go on to star in mainstream WWII films like Enemy at the Gates (2001) and Downfall (2004)). Sophie is deeply in love with Erich, but little does she realize that her brother Konrad is also in love with him. Naturally, hardcore conservative Erich rebuffs the rather blatant and even desperate advances of Sophie. To complicate things further, Sophie is a good friend of a blond Jewish commie revolutionary named Grigori Loew (Franz Morak), who feeds the spoiled yet bored Contessa’s thirst for knowledge with copies of works by suicidal Austrian Expressionist poet Georg Trakl. Unfortunately, Sophie takes Grigori's advice after he gives her a copy of Trakl's Die Dichtungen with the following words inscribed, “Always follow the voice of your heart.”  A hyper horny single lady of childbearing age who wants to marry a man just like her brother, Sophie becomes a moody and broody succubus of hysteria and irrationalism.  As Erich soon learns, a Lithuanian sergeant recently raped Sophie and thus her sexuality seems all out of whack because of it.  Naturally, seeing the sorry state of her quasi-senile spinster aunt Tante every single day only further inspires Sophie's dedication to making Erich her man and she is willing to go to a number of self-destructive extremes to get him, even if it kills her.

 In a feeble and stereotypically female attempt to get Erich’s attention, Sophie begins screwing other soldiers, including a fellow named Franz von Aland (Frederik von Zichy), who is killed in front of the chateau only a little while after having a premonition of his own death and seeking carnal knowledge with the Countess. Sophie almost manages to get Erich to screw her after hatefully stating, “Responsibility and discipline! Everything else inside you is dead. You’re incapable of passion,” but their attempt at intercourse is ultimately interrupted. When a young soldier named Volkmar (Mathieu Carrière)—a man whose father is apparently gay and purportedly had sex with Rasputin—arrives at the chateau, Sophie starts a lurid love affair with him, which only proves to irritate Erich, but does not make him any more interested in her as a lover. When Erich slaps Sophie in the face at a Christmas party for whoring herself out to all the men there, Volkmar “demands satisfaction,” but the duel never happens. That same night, Erich makes a promise to Sophie that he will come back to her after a military mission and that they will start a new life together. When Erich sends Volkmar back to the chateau to report a message, the young gentleman caller proposes to Sophie but she declines, as she believes she will be getting with her true beloved. Hurt by the Countess’ rejection of marriage, Volkmar spitefully tells Sophie that Erich and her brother Konrad are gay lovers who apparently did more than just kill commies in Riga. Naturally, when Erich comes back to the chateau, Sophie calls him out on his homosexual affair with her brother. As a Bolshevik-brainwashed spoiled little girl with too much time on her hands who is quite open about her sympathy for the red and believes regarding her family and other Baltic-Germans, “The new era has no use for our tradition,” Sophie leaves the chateau permanently, hooks up with her Judeo-bolshevik friend Grigori, and becomes a communist terrorist. Meanwhile, Sophie’s brother Konrad is killed. When Erich and his soldiers capture a bunch of red terrorists hiding in a shack, they kill Grigori like a dog and capture Sophie. While Erich offers to save Sophie, she turns him down and treats him with disdain. Like all captured bolshy thugs, Sophie and her commie comrades are to be executed. As a special request, Sophie asks Erich to execute her in what can be seen as a final declaration of love from a desperate woman (as well as a sort of haunting revenge ensuring that Erich will always live with the fact he killed his gay lover's sister), which he does with the same sort of robotic apathy with which he has always treated her, not even looking at her when he puts a bullet in her brain. The End. 

 Maybe it’s just me, but I have always thought Margarethe von Trotta seemed like a disgruntled bitch and this certainly lends to her shockingly notable performance in Coup de Grâce where she proves she can do more than just take her clothes off like she did in Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (1971). Indeed, I have also always chalked up women taking on a feminist Weltanschauung as a sign of bitter disappointment in men (namely fathers, lovers, etc.) and von Trotta’s character Sophie certainly fits this mold. Admittedly, I was rather shocked that I found myself feeling empathy for Sophie, which is certainly not something I can say of Vivien Leigh’s queen bitch character from Gone with the Wind (1939), thus leading me to suspect that under von Trotta’s hard feminist exterior lies a vulnerable woman who has built a wall around herself. While the seemingly immaculate direction of Coup de Grâce is owed to auteur Volker Schlöndorff’s mastery of the cinematic craft, the film is also clearly a von Trotta film. After all, after co-directing the quasi-pro-leftist-terrorist flick The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975) with her then-hubby Schlöndorff, von Trotta would almost exclusively focus on hard yet hysterical female characters that traded in their femininity for far-left/feminist idealism. Luckily, since Schlöndorff is a much more competent director in comparison to von Trotta, Coup de Grâce manages to get its dubious message across without falling into aesthetic banality. If von Trotta’s surname is any indication of her ostensibly noble heritage, one can only assume that Coup de Grâce is a barely inconspicuously personal work co-written by and starring a woman fed up with not only men, but also her nation, culture, and people. After all, the Bolshevik revolution led to not only Germany’s loss of power of the Slavic lands, but also led to the circumstances from which would lead to the birth of National Socialism (indeed, it is no coincidence that National Socialist philosopher Alfred Rosenberg was a Baltic-German who witnessed the revolution firsthand). In its dedication to Jean-Pierre Grumbach and inclusion of degenerate kosher cabaret artist Valeska Gert as the kooky aunt of von Trotta’s character, not to mention its unflattering depiction of Prussian Junkers and ridiculous sympathy for aristocrat-exterminating Bolshevik thugs and Judaic Trotskyite conspirators, Coup de Grâce demonstrates a degree of unrivaled Teutonic philo-Semitism that is simply awe-inspiring and would be funny were it not for the fact that such exceedingly ethno-masochistic tendencies were representative of young educated Germans of that time. In some ways one of the more underrated works of German New Cinema, Coup de Grâce ultimately seems rather outmoded due to its reductionist approach to politics and history. That being said, Schlöndorff still has time to redeem himself by directing an objective von Ungern-Sternberg biopic, but that is about as likely as his ex-wife making a film that did not seem like it was directed by some nameless hack in Hollywood. 

-Ty E


jervaise brooke hamster said...

I like to think the geezer raising the bottle is saying: "All hail Heather O`Rourke, THE most gorgeous little darlin` who ever lived".

jervaise brooke hamster said...

You`re supposed to respect him as a film-maker and yet you didn`t even acknowledge the geezers 75th birthday...DUH ! ! !.