France / Germany, 1976
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Coup de Grâce opens with the sudden and resilient image of running feet. The view extends; we see two German soldiers (it is the Russian Civil War) and a horse, leading a dense and rural snow-covered horizon. Around is the violent activity (gunshots and bombs) of a faceless enemy — an activity consistent throughout the film. As the shot appropriately denotes Coup de Grâce is concerned with a limited group of individual characters and their plights both influenced by and unrelated to their war. Its opening shot is an image of urgency and ironic beauty that relays the film’s political conflict and photographic emphasis.
Coup de Grâce, not a war film as it may seem in description, is nonetheless pertinent to the genre, as the historical episode it recounts is underrepresented in film. Furthermore, the war, here, is a secondary device, used at the expense of Volker Schlöndorff’s investment in characterization. It is an ambiguously political film (the argument of its war is inherited, though neither side is defended exemplarily), in regard to both its war and sexual conflict.
Sophie is a countess at Kratovice (a defensive hide out for German soldiers). She is both a muse and sexual pawn. She finds, favorably outnumbered, a romantic variety at Kratovice, although her interest in committal — her love — is persistently unreciprocated, particularly so as she makes her interest exclusive to a soldier Erich.
Erich is persistently repressed when opportunity for intimacy with Sophie arrives (there are references to his homosexuality). In her exclusive company, he is rejective; when she is with another man, he is defensively protective. The most erotic scene in the film occurs with the pair divided on either side of a door. Each leans close into the wooden plane, and mutually admits — for the first time — their love. It is a confession that could occur no other way, as only the safety of a barrier allows their conflictive affiliations, which they would sacrifice in intimate collaboration.
The war transpires in peripheral movement. As Sophie’s frustrations grow, she earns sympathy for the Bolsheviks, and will become a traitress to the army in her company. It is a dynamic in the film, that larger politics are manifested in subjective, personal, and unrelated terms.
Volker Schlöndorff and his wife Margarethe von Trotta (scenarist and actor in this film) adapted the material from Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel. The film (perhaps due to von Trotta’s collaboration) inherits are more objective approach (the source text uses Erich as narrator), and this is most apparent in the film’s ending. It is a climax I will not reveal, yet will note that an otherwise intimate scene is placed at an unsympathetic distance. This resolution in Coup de Grâce, in result of activity depicted with intimate interest in its prior minutes, is cold and distant, placing characters with which we have become familiar in sudden anonymity.