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and Kirk Wise

A decade ago, New German Cinema pioneer Volker Schlöndorff returned almost home—to the former East Berlin. The Wiesbaden native, who had been filming in Paris and Hollywood, took on the task of rebuilding Babelsburg Studios, once the center of the East German film industry. For American audiences, the principal evidence of Schlöndorff’s time in Babelsburg has been Palmetto, a 1998 English-language mediocrity set in Florida but shot partly in the director’s new domain. Now comes a much more appropriate Babelsburg venture: The Legend of Rita, a fictionalized account of the Red Army Faction (RAF), the violent German leftist cadre best known for the actions of one of its subgroups, the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

Rita Vogt (Bibiana Beglau) was invented by Schlöndorff and screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who once viewed the Berlin Wall from the Eastern side. (He began working at Babelsburg in the early ’60s.) Many of the facts of the character’s life, however, were borrowed from actual RAF biographies. Rita is introduced robbing a bank with her pals, who proclaim, “Property is theft”—quoting Proudhon as a music-box version of “The Internationale” yields to the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Later, Rita and her cohorts rescue her lover, Andi (Harald Schrott), from prison, in a somewhat botched operation that resembles the one in which Andreas Baader was freed by Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin.

Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin died under questionable circumstances in German prisons in 1976 and 1977, but Rita’s life takes a different turn. After shooting a traffic cop in Paris, she appeals to East German secret agent Erwin Hull (Martin Wuttke) to transport her and her colleagues to some African country in the throes of a Marxist revolution. His nonnegotiable counteroffer is a new life in East Germany, complete with a “legend”—a fake biography—concocted by the Stasi, the country’s notorious secret police. Rita Vogt, champion of working-class revolution, is to be transformed into Susanne Schmidt, an actual member of the working class.

In this guise, Rita learns that few of her new comrades care much for socialism and revolution; when the subject of young West German leftists arises, everyday East Germans are contemptuous. During a compressed chronology that reduces the ’80s to one mention of Nicaragua, Rita finds herself drawn to Tatjana (Nadja Uhl), an East German-style malcontent whose rebellion involves drinking heavily and skipping her shift at the textile factory. As this friendship deepens into love, however, Erwin abruptly shifts Rita to yet another identity—the one she’ll still have when the Wall comes down and the West German authorities are free to search for former Red Army members in the former East. (In fact, 10 former RAF members were rounded up in East Germany in 1990.)

Schlöndorff’s most urgent work since 1981’s Circle of Deceit, The Legend of Rita inevitably recalls his breakthrough film, 1975’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (co-directed by his then-wife, Margarethe von Trotta). That incendiary movie contemplated the enormous (and arbitrary) power that West German authorities marshalled in their battle against “terrorism”; this one is a rueful epilogue, contemplating the New Left’s folly in declaring a war its imagined allies had no interest in it winning. Outflanked on both sides, the would-be revolutionaries discover that their Stasi handlers are utterly bourgeois—upon their arrival in the East, Rita and her friends are invited to a commie backyard cookout—and coolly capable of bartering the Westerners’ fate. The performers—especially Beglau and Wuttke—deftly convey the characters’ various degrees of innocence and experience as the revolution fades.

The Legend of Rita returns to New German Cinema’s quick-and-dirty ’70s style, shaped by a budget that clearly didn’t allow for the sort of high-style distractions that characterized Schlöndorff’s international co-productions. Once again, he’s working with small crews, charismatic nonstars, and found songs. (Indeed, the film is almost Dogmatic in its discreet and very occasional use of music.) Ironically, this tale of a dispossessed ’70s revolutionary demonstrates that the director, at least, can go home again.

The first few minutes of Atlantis: The Lost Empire should summon pleased nods from sunken-continent buffs. This sumptuously rendered but tedious PG-rated Disneyfication of the Atlantis yarn opens with a quotation from Plato, whose discussion of Atlantis is the only surviving ancient reference to the lost city; the epigraph is followed by a vision of the destruction of the city, whose design is a series of rings, just as Plato described it. Then the movie shifts to Washington in 1914.

Washington in 1914? Well, it almost makes sense. Minnesota Congressman Ignatius Donnelly, who spent his spare time in the Library of Congress doing pseudo-academic research for his many preposterous books, is still cited as an authority on the vanished civilization. Donnelly was dead by 1914, but his 1882 tome, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, remains the second-most influential account of Atlantis available to modern crackpots—and, apparently, to contemporary animators like Atlantis directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise and scripter Tab Murphy.

Atlantis’ hero is Milo Thatch (the voice of Michael J. Fox), a low-level researcher at the Smithsonian. He’s a bumbler but a master linguist, the only man in the world who can read ancient Atlantean. (The language was invented for the movie by Marc Okrand, who previously worked on Vulcan and Klingon for Star Trek.) Milo’s stuffy bosses won’t indulge the young researcher’s interest in Atlantis, but he’s suddenly recruited for a mission funded by a millionaire (John Mahoney) and led by a hard-boiled “adventurer capitalist” (James Garner). The crew is remarkably multiculti for 1914:

It includes a Nordic femme fatale, a teenage Latina master mechanic,

a New Age-y doctor of African-American and Amerindian heritage, a filthy French archaeologist obsessed with digging, a twangy cook who seems to have been recruited from a Midwestern cattle drive, and a laconic but explosive Italian demolition expert. (The last is named Vinny Santorini—a cute touch: Santorini is the Aegean island whose volcanic near-destruction, circa 1450 B.C.E., has been offered as a factual basis for the Atlantis legend.)

Once the voyage begins, the story recalls Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the work of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose films lovingly illustrate the sort of vintage 19th- and early-20th-century technology on display here. Upon the crew’s arrival in Atlantis, the plot develops a resemblance to Pocahontas’ eco-fable: Milo falls in love with the bikini-clad Princess Kida (Cree Summer), and his cohorts are revealed as despoilers. Milo and Kida must save Atlantis, using the crystal amulet the princess wears without knowing its power. (The crystal may be another New Age thing, but it’s suspiciously similar to the pendant worn by the heroine of Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky.)

Atlantis is portrayed as a mélange of Mediterranean, Central American, and South Asian architecture and terrain, and its language as the “root dialect” of all Indo-European tongues—ideas borrowed from Donnelly, who thought that Atlantis was the missing link that explained similarities between geographically distant ancient cultures. The Atlanteans, brown-skinned nobles with blue body-paint markings, are part Egyptian, part Mayan, and part “modern primitive.” And James Newton Howard’s score combines choral and orchestral swells with non-European beats and timbres—a recipe that’s already become hackneyed.

Some Disney marketer probably saw this project as combining the underwater appeal of The Little Mermaid, the classical pedigree of Hercules, and the environmental consciousness of Pocahontas. One of a very few widescreen animated features, Atlantis is something to see. But it doesn’t have any songs or talking-animal sidekicks to distract from its flat story, and the comic relief is mostly desperate: belches, fart jokes, and junior-high arm-punching contests. The rating indicates that it isn’t meant for the kiddies, but the movie—like last year’s dreary Titan A.E.—just proves that PG is an awkward age for animation. Many skeptics have argued that Atlantis is a myth, but this ‘toon is the first to suggest that the lost continent is simply too boring to have ever existed. CP