German director Volker Schlondorff has a knack for pragmatism; Coup de Grâce is an unforgettable Schlondorff‘s masterwork recreating almost forgotten slices of history. This movie was made in 1976, was adapted from the novel by the same name by the French author Marguerite Yourcenar. The title comes from the French expression, meaning “finishing blow”.
This was watched in my home video- Many serious questions rise about this movie which is very emotional and looks like the director Schlondorff had studied in detail and reflects the effect of his story telling ability with a great visual treat and makes audience contemplate it with a certain amount of objectivity which is simply mesmerizing.
As this is adapted from the novel, this story is seen from the point of view of the soldier Erich von Lhomond. However, the main character of the film is Sophie de Reval, played by Margarethe von Trotta, who also co-wrote the screenplay. The filmmakers felt that an audience of 1976 would more readily identify with the independence and resolve exhibited by Sophie than with Erich’s repressed conservatism. In addition, the Russian Civil War is only a vague backdrop in the novel, but the film depicts battlefield engagements with a brutal reality that makes the war a significant presence.
The film is set in the time in winter of 1919-20, shortly after the end of World War I. The background is that Baltic territory where the Allies, for a while represented by troops of the defeated Kaiser, waged an indiscriminate campaign against the Bolsheviks who had come to power in Russia. That war, too, was already over but the people fighting it hadn’t been told. As the war became increasingly fragmented, the battles became more and more violent, bitter and personal.
On one of the great Latvian estates near Riga, still comparatively serene in spite of food shortages, disease and defections to the Rod cause, the last act is played out as the kind of domestic drama that comes perilously close to farce. No one quite understands what’s happening, but then when they do, they continue to pursue doom not as duty but as conscious choice.
The movie is a perfect backdrop for a story about impossible love. Sophie von Revel (Margarethe von Trotta), with her brother Konrad (Rudiger Kirschstein), is the heir of Kratovice, a decaying feudal manor near the Latvian city of Riga. The manor is “infected” by a Bolshevism that, in the words of one character, “by daylight hides in the woods” and “at night… comes to the villages to be fed by the inhabitants.” The very Teutonic Erich returns from Berlin with Konrad to defend the estate and Sophie falls in love with him, but he does not reciprocate. Instead, Erich has designs on Konrad, and Sophie, who has some sympathy for the Bolsheviks (distilled in the character of Grigori Loew [Franz Marak], a petit-bourgeois tailor and revolutionary), turns first to sexual excess with other men, and then to political radicalism, when she joins with the Communists.
This melodrama is delivered with a decidedly melancholy air, assisted by the black and white cinematography. Sophie seems to have no hope of escaping. Trapped amongst men (she’s the only female character of consequence) and their discourses (war, sexual power, politics), she’s consistently punished. Failing to inspire Erich’s interest, her moral “descent” and eventual decision to take up arms with against Erich and her brother, are not options so much as predestined avenues for failure.
Looking at the Director’s lines- It’s also a kind of allegory about the collapse of one order and the survival of another. It’s the story of Sophie (Miss von Trotta), a handsome, strong-willed aristocrat, her younger brother Konrad (Rudiger Kirschstein), and Erich (Matthias Habich), the Prussian officer who commands the White garrison at their country house. Sophie loves Erich, Erich loves (apparently from afar) Konrad, and Konrad, having not much passion for anything, exists passively, to be supported by those around him.
Though Sophie loves Erich, her sympathies are with the Reds, a political commitment she doesn’t act upon until she learns about Erich’s feelings for Konrad. As the campaign against the Bolsheviks collapses, only Erich the true Prussian maintains some sense of purpose. Life at the great house falls into disorder. The crazy old aunt, who talks French and wears horrendous makeup, presides at formal dinners as artillery shells land in the garden. When the Bolsheviks triumph, only Erich survives to muse in voice-over narration—about the depth of Sophie’s love and fury.
Schlöndorff’s film develops its love-story narrative in parallel to its war-film narrative. In Coup de Grâce, Sophie’s intertwined expectations for meaningful relationships, personal happiness, and sexual fulfillment are at odds with the largely male-created universe of militarism. Schlöndorff creates a world of intimacy without sex, of sex without intimacy, and of both without happiness. In terms of film genre, the movie asks whether the traditionally constructed love story can survive if the woman seeks to be the man’s equal and strives to propagate values counter to repressive masculine ones. Sophie is open, while Erich clings to orthodox formalities and appearances. She is self-disclosing, Erich evasive and even duplicitous. We are never sure whether his feelings for the circumstance are sexual, fraternal, or controlling paternalistic. This ambiguity throws audience identification onto the side of Sophie. Besides Erich survive to support the later rise of Adolf Hitler? “Coup de Grace” remains at such a remoteness from its characters that one must make all sorts of assumptions about them, I guess by and large that’s where Volker Schlondorff wanted the audience to get into those questions and best left unanswered……………
Despite its modest claims, Volker Schlöndorff’s ‘Coup de Grâce can be considered a jewel among his creations. While it is clear that his political sympathies are not anti-Bolshevik, he never establishes whether his drama should be interpreted personally or politically and so challenges the viewer to resolve the tension between the two. It is clear that struggles between the sexes, women’s themes, rebellion, and politics, as well as German history, offer points of contact between Schlöndorff’s film and Yourcenar’ s novel. But what is most significant in Schlöndorff’s adaptation is the way in which, despite changes in structure and point of view, the two works remain strikingly aligned in mood, meaning, and final effect. Each shows a graceful hewing of its respective medium and a certain prescribed precision, and yet neither indulges in stylistic excess for its own sake. Coup de Grâce brings Schlöndorff back to the talent that earlier made him an adorable movie maker
- Directed by Volker Schlöndorff
- Produced by Eberhard Junkersdorf and Anatole Dauman
- Screenplay by Jutta Brückner; Margarethe von Trotta & Geneviève Dormann
- Based on the novel ‘Coup de Grâce’ by Marguerite Yourcenar
- Casting: Margarethe von Trotta; Matthias Habich & Rüdiger Kirschstein
- Music by Stanley Myers
- Cinematography Igor Luther
- Editing by Jane Sperr