The coup de grace of a typical war movie is that final battle that either wipes out the enemy or forces them to surrender. But what if the war is one of the heart, one that is not fought with bullets and artillery? What would be that finishing stroke that forces a woman to wither away into sorrow and death after not gaining affection from the man she loves?
Director Volker Schlondorff masterfully tackles both of these types of war in Coup de Grace, an exceptional film set during the final days of Russian Civil War (1919). Konrad von Reval (Rudiger Kirschstein) returns home to the castle Kratovice, now a military stronghold, along with his comrade Erich von Lhomond (Matthias Habich). Konrad's sister, Sophie (Margarethe von Trotta), is there waiting, and she quickly falls in love with Erich.
There are at least two things wrong with this situation. The first of which is Sophie's political sympathies for the Bolsheviks in the nearby town, many of whom she has become friends with. The second is, of course, the fact that Erich does not love her in return. It's a dangerous combination that truly propels this film into unexpected places.
At first, Sophie's blunt and overly forward attempts to win Erich's heart come across as comical. She all but lays herself at his feet and he just keeps saying no. But as the film moves on, her attempts to win his heart become acts of desperation. It's plain to see her promiscuity with other soldiers is done out of depression, an act done only to get back at the man who scorned her and, hopefully, to make him jealous enough to actually accept her love.
I enjoyed this film primarily because I understood both sides. Anyone who has loved someone who did not return that feeling will be moved by Sophie's response. She craved his attention so badly, she would do anything to get a reaction, even if it was a negative one. And the looks of desire she cast Erich's way actually pained me, most likely due to a subtlety not available in modern romances.
Perhaps the power of Coup de Grace comes from what I, as viewer, could understand that the characters themselves could not. Sophie feels she is not loved, but in reality, she is loved by all the soldiers, particularly Erich. But for reasons unknown to anyone other than Erich (although they are expressed later in the film), he is unable to express it physically, which is the only way Sophie understands love. In other words, they love one another, just not in the way the other wants or expects.
The pacing of this film might distract certain viewers. There's no doubt the story takes a while to develop, but without this investment, I doubt I would have been as deeply involved with the characters. It was this involvement that made the twists of that dramatic ending so much more powerful. As the credits rolled, I imagined that the final 10 minutes of Coup de Grace certainly promoted heated discussions by movie-goers when the film debuted in 1976. Even by today's standards, the final images are nothing short of shocking and disturbing.
Coup de Grace is the dramatic representation of love not seen in today's multiplexes. It's subtle, with very little flash. It's a love story told through small actions or deep emotions expressed with a simple, telling look. It's just as it should be.
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