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Rotterdam’s Spying Thing

A thematic retrospective on espionage flicks showcased some of the best of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam.
Deserting a festival’s official competition for a thematic retrospective can feel somewhat awkward, especially at an extravaganza so rich in new voices as the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). Yet the decision proved most fruitful with “The Spying Thing,” a sidebar IFFR devoted to “espionage as a way of filming and the camera as a spying weapon.” A 21-strong lineup offered timeless classics (from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window to Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three) as well as some of the world cinema's latest offerings (László Nemes’ Sunset and Yoon Jong-bin’s The Spy Gone North).
Yet “The Spying Thing” started—according to Gustavo Beck, who co-curated it alongside Gerwin Tamsma—with the second of Mariano Llinás’ monumental 3-part, 14-hour epic La Flor. I shall not attempt to dwell into Llinás’ opus magnum—Ross McDonnell already did an egregious job for the Notebook reviewing it at its Locarno premiere last August. Suffice it to say that La Flor’s second chapter—entirely dedicated to the third of its six episodes—is a spy film that touches on several themes explored by other entries in the section, from the tensions inherent in the two-Bloc world, espionage as propaganda, the gender dimensions of the genre, and of course, the pantheon of heroes and femmes fatales. Arguably the section’s greatest pleasure was to locate its offerings within their respective zeitgeist—to gauge the hysterias and shifting balances that predated (and survived) the Cold War era from the power relations unfolding onscreen.
SPY FLICKS AS PROPAGANDA TOOLS
Nowhere did the pedagogical mission inherent in so many entries in the program feel more evident than in British director John Krish’s 1959 Captured, a 64-minute docudrama commissioned by the Army Kinema Corporation and designed to prepare British troops to withstand harsh interrogation techniques should they become prisoners of war. The year is 1950, the setting a stretch of Surrey miserable enough to turn into a believable no man’s land Korea, where a group of British POWs struggle in the hands of Chinese forces. It’s an enemy that ostensibly champions “lenient” indoctrination and re-education practices over brute physical force—save for when the inmates appeal to the out-of-bounds Geneva Convention, or when a newly captured prisoner and alleged spy (Alan Dobie) lands at the camp with a belligerent swagger and precious intel, leading the guards to double their fury.
Captured
Restricted from public viewing until 2004, part of the allure of this rare black and white gem is to watch Krish conjure up an unsettling cinematic experience out of what was ostensibly designed to be an instructional work. Indeed, Captured leaves no mysteries around its pedagogical function, with ex-POW Anthony Farrar-Hockley introducing it to fellow soldiers, in a fourth wall-breaking preamble, as a film “based on our real experiences.” But if there are moments when the instructional subtext feels tactlessly overt (“we just stood there doing nothing!” an inmate reflects on the group’s cowardice after the captors go hard on Dobie), the didacticism is cleverly reined in by the all-pervasive nightmarish feeling Krish instils to his work. Stark shadows and constrained angles add to the setting’s claustrophobic aura, made even more unsettling by the very few and low-roofed interiors the action unfurls in. And while onscreen violence may feel mild by present-day standards, an extended waterboarding scene—Dobie’s face soaked in water and helplessly grasping for air—stands out as a terrifying precursor to the torture sequence in Godard's 1960 Le petit soldat, and the “enhanced interrogation practices” explored a few decades later by the likes of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.
Predating Krish’s work by seven years, Leo McCarey’s 1952 My Son John is another paradigmatic instance of virulent anti-Communist propaganda, this time on the other side of the pond, and at the height of the McCarthy era. At a time when the Red Scare in Hollywood had already churned out a whole anti-commie filmography—a crazed universe where, from Robert Stevenson’s 1949 I Married a Communist to Edward Ludwig’s 1952 Big Jim McLain, “Reds” lurked everywhere—questioning authorities was tantamount to treason, and education, especially as it dared to question religion, was seen as suspicious, McCarey’s infamous My Son John stood out as among the craziest of the batch.
Pitted against the triad Country-Church-Family is John (Robert Walker), an effete intellectual who works in Washington D.C. and returns for an impromptu visit to his family home. More an estranged than a prodigal son, just what exactly John’s work in D.C. consists of isn’t any clearer to us than to his loving mother (Helen Hayes) and fiercely patriotic father (Dean Jagger). What we do know—and McCarey’s Oscar-nominated script emphasizes ad nauseam—is that the clash between John and the world he suddenly returns to is one of irreconcilable cosmogonies. A high-brow bookworm with plenty of contempt for his father’s reverence for Uncle Sammie and mother’s religious beliefs, John turns into a caricature of the liberal intelligentsia which the McCarthyist discourse hashed out as a poisonous epidemic.  
My Son John
Pointedly, if the lad embodies intellectualism and scientific rigor to a deliberately hyperbolic extent (“he’s got more degrees than a thermometer,” his mother remarks), the latter aren’t a patch on the religious principles espoused by his parents and home community at large. Early into his trip home, John hails the family’s doctor as a man of science, a veritable progress-maker, but the man’s response only reiterates the supremacy of God over science: “someone put scientists and progress-making people in that place.” Even when McCarey seems to allow for a sense of proximity between the young man’s principles and his parents’, the two worlds remain forever apart: if John professes a genuine love toward humanity and the downtrodden—a love that rings close to his profoundly Catholic mother—the moment the truth about his political allegiance is laid bare there is no motherly love to rescue him. If anything, McCarey paints both parents as victims of communism—that cancer whose specialty, as John’s father ominously warns early into the feature, “is breaking up homes.”    
Much like in Captured, the spying thing here hardly translates into a physical act. John’s parents suspect their son may be involved with the enemy, but whatever his help to the Russians may be McCarey doesn’t spell out explicitly. Not that the true extent and nature of John’s espionage should matter much, anyways. As for other offerings of the Hollywood Red Scare output, one turns to My Son John to marvel at Hollywood’s anti-Communist propaganda at its most toxic, all-out-bonkers excesses.  Each and every one of its 124 minutes reads as a lecture on the Reds’ evils—a message reiterated so pedantically to be seen as counterproductive even by the critics who first approached it in the early 1950s, with The New York Times' Bosley Crowther predicting My Son John "may add heat and wind, but it may also startle some people into making a new and sober estimate of things."
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CURTAIN
Juxtaposed to the anti-Reds craze, “The Spying Thing” offered a few delightful rarities from the opposite camp—among them, Bulgarian Metodi Andonov’s There Is Nothing Finer than Bad Weather, and Zbyněk Brynych’s Skid. Conceived just before his 1972 The Goat Horn and 1973 The Great Boredom, Andonov’s 1971 black and white drama follows sleek Bulgarian super-spy Emil Boev (Georgi Georgiev-Getz) as he tries to flush out a spy ring that hired him to take down Communist agents threatening a Berlin-looking Western city—a mission he’s helped in by his charming assistant, Edit (Elena Rainova), who’s also playing a double game of her own.
The traditional hardline tropes of Cold War films are here muted down in favor of a jazzier, Swinging Sixties vibe, which graces Bad Weather with an unbridled energy echoing the New Wave classics. It’s a film of elegant characters and elegant gestures, which seldom relies on onscreen violence or sophisticated high-tech gadgets to function. Messages are smuggled through cigarettes filters, all Boev seems to be toting is a pair of binoculars, and confrontations are resolved through dialogue, not force. Even Georgiev-Getz’s physique du role appears closer to a melancholic hero à la Alain Delon’s Jef Costello in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 Le samouraï than the trademark hyper-masculine protagonists of the genre.
Yet the real joy in Bad Weather is to witness a two Bloc-world suddenly becoming more porous. By the early 1970s the world had begun to reckon with the age of rapprochement, a new chapter in the Cold War era that heralded a de-frosting of the relations between the two Blocs, and which Bulgaria had begun to implement under Communist leader Todor Zhikov’s daughter Lyudmila Zhivkova. This cultural renewal translates, in Andonov’s work, into a curious sense of East-West syncretism: lines of Soviet Ladas glide past bars stashed with Beatles-looking hippies jamming to the tunes of Creedence Clearwater Revival; the Western ambience of the get-togethers Georgiev-Getz attends with his suave, taciturn swagger is authentic, never antagonized or mocked; and even the word communism, throughout the film’s 129 minutes, is only mentioned once.
Skid
Nothing could be father in time and space from the purported rapprochement Adonov’s film falls in line with than Zbyněk Brynych’s own spy flick, 1960 Skid. From the outset, with its dizzying series of billboards, road signs, and commercials, capitalism protrudes into the frame as an oppressive and de-humanizing force, the blinding lights reinforcing the sense of alienation suffered by Skid’s protagonist, Czech immigrant František Král (Jiri Vala). Having suffered a terrible car accident in West Berlin, the local secret services step in to take advantage of Král’s partial amnesia, training him as a spy to get hold of a microfilm hidden in the man’s native Prague. With the man’s memories of his hometown blurred by the accident, the secret services can effectively craft whatever background story they see fit—in Král’s case, the goal is to cajole him into thinking the world he left behind was one of bleak prospects and ungrateful people. Except when the spy eventually does make his way back home—hired by a Berlin circus to perform somersaults—reality resurfaces, plunging Král into an achingly nostalgic identity crisis.
Structurally more complex than any of the entries into "The Spying Thing" I was able to watch, Skid unfurls through a complex series of flashbacks, stupefying for its ambitious aesthetics and temporal scaffolding. Král’s character arc is peppered with music, satire, and endless irony: in an early montage, the man meanders along a boulevard dressed as a food mascot, spying on the crowd around him, the ridiculous look of it all tempered down by the ominous line he hums under the outfit—“to find, alas, it was never just a dream”—the camera teleporting us back to the site of the car crash, the vehicle still engulfed in flames. Cinematographer Jan Kališ chaperons us into Král’s recollections through an experimental camerawork that alternates blurred and distorted lensing with tinier, boxy formats—the man’s recollections trapped, as it were, in the confines of his own mind. An interesting fixation on faces and bodies dons the whole feature a quasi-Fellinian aura, but any La dolce vita-inspired bonanza (including an early strip tease) is undergirded with Brynych’s all-pervasive critique of the West and its excesses. It is eye-opening, in this light, to see Král roll out of the nightclub and scolding the stripper (herself a Czech expat in West Berlin) for betraying her home country and disrespecting her fellow countrymen who make ends meet through far “more honorable” occupations.
Still, the wonder here is to watch ice-cool Jiri Vala squaring his secret mission with a flamboyant cover job utterly at odds with his signature ice-cool expression. There are traces of a Charlot-like magic in the pantomimes and pirouettes the spy-cum-somersault performs before hordes of astonished kids—the performance reaching unexpectedly harrowing heights when one of the young admirers turns out to be none other than Král’s own estranged son. Come for Brynych’s visual experimenting, stay for Vala’s broken expression—an aching vulnerability that only billows to life when a heavily made-up somersault mask allows the spy to show a sad face.
"DON'T MAKE AN ISSUE OF MY WOMANHOOD!": THE SPYING THING AND GENDER ROLES
Save for the bleak Captured and McCarey’s My Son John, every other entry in "The Spying Thing" I caught in Rotterdam zeroed in on protagonists struggling with suicidal missions as well as with femmes fatales. Whether in the shape of aides, lovers, backstabbers, or all three, female characters featured heavily across the program—though the nature of their contribution to the (male) protagonists’ tasks varied tremendously. If the pleasure of watching the breadth of films "The Spying Thing" had to offer stemmed largely from understanding each as reflective of its own zeitgeist, nothing felt more interesting than looking at the gender dimensions of Michael Curtiz’s British Agent and Ernst Lubitsch’s extraordinary Ninotchka.  
British Agent
British diplomat Steven (Leslie Howard) finds himself witnessing History in the making in Curtiz’s 1934 drama. Stranded in St. Petersburg at the time of the Bolshevik 1917 Revolution, the young man is tasked by his superiors in London to convince the Soviets not to sign a separate peace treaty with Germany, which could lead to fiercer battles and heavier losses for the Brits fighting on the Western front. That Soviet Russia did not follow Steven’s instructions is hardly a spoiler, but British Agent is far less interested in highlighting the negotiations’ nefarious ending than the diplomat’s unshakable patriotism. Come to think of it, of all the classical espionage films I sat through while at IFFR, British Agent stood out as the only case where its protagonist was neither a spy from the start, nor was he tricked into being one. Indeed, Steven voluntarily signs up for a suicidal mission out of sheer, selfless love for his home country—the kind of veneration that jolted me back to McCarey’s over-the-top patriotism in My Son John.
But it is Steven’s relationship with his Soviet lover Elena that’s most illuminating here. A Bolshevik with a leather trench coat and oodles of grit, Elena (Kay Francis) first appears in British Agent as she fights the Cossacks in the streets of St Petersburg. Smitten with Steven—an attraction that’s certainly reciprocated—the girl’s affair and allegiance to her country are hashed out as a zero-sum game: allowing her love story with a foreign spy to continue is to betray her own work and principles. But in Curtiz’s script, the choice is a no-brainer. Courage, might, and patriotism are quintessentially male virtues, and all the idealism and fervor Elena bursts with as she first graces the screen eventually dissipate in the face of Steven’s own. “You have the beauty of Joan of Arc,” Howard tells Francis half way through British Agent, “but to think of you as her is to lose you as a martyr; I’d rather keep you as a woman.” The irony here is that what will ultimately get the lovebirds out of a fatal showdown with the Soviet forces is not Steven’s brains or mighty courage, but none other than Lenin himself, who—as an unlikely deus ex machina—eventually issues pardons to all political prisoners, including diplomat-turned-spy Steven. It’s an anticlimactic ending for a film that had parceled out its most memorable quote moments earlier. “I haven’t the courage to go on being a patriot or idealist any longer, Steven,” Francis tells Howard as the Soviet troops surround their hideout, “I tried to, but I’m too much of a woman.”  
Ninotchka
Tell that to Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka. An uber-cool, ostensibly heartless Soviet special envoy tasked with retrieving confiscated Imperial jewels in Paris, she stumbles into a French count (Melvyn Douglas) whom the gems’ former owner, Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), has instructed to halt the Russian mission. What ensues is a miracle of stage chemistry between Douglas and Garbo, the count trying to court the Soviet agent, who seems to be far more interested in studying the enemy’s architectural achievements than indulging in romance, however short-lived it may be. Based on an original story by Melchior Lengyel and written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch, Ninotchka is a peppered with gags and savage one-liners which—a whopping 80 years after the MGM ads rallied people to movie theatres to the paean “Garbo Laughs!”—haven’t aged one bit.  
Kay Francis’ Elena isn’t a patch on Garbo’s stern and no-nonsense swagger. If Ninotchka amuses with the scientific rigor she uses to debunk the count’s flirting (reducing his nauseatingly saccharine romanticism to biological urges, much like “commie” Robert Walker had done in My Son John), the moment Garbo finally cracks up at the sight of Douglas’ clumsiness in the iconic restaurant scene is a veritable joy for the eyes. Yet falling in love and succumbing to romance do not imply giving up any of her resolute, fierce attitude. True, Douglas and Garbo eventually do fall in love—and how heart-warming it is to watch them grow fonder of each other, over and against the antagonistic roles imposed upon them—but even when she’s unmistakably smitten with her count, Ninotchka remains the extraordinarily confident, no-nonsense lady who jumped out of a train in Paris and warned her fellow Soviet agents “not to make an issue of [her] womanhood.”
What is possibly more interestingly still, Douglas’ masculinity is also subject to a fierce satire. A far cry from the subjectivities rooted in bravery and prowess espoused by other male heroes in the program (from Captured’s Alan Dobie to Skid’s Jiri Vala), the Parisian-stranded count may well stand out as a charming tombeur de femmes, but his relationship with Grand Duchess Swana deserves careful scrutiny. Brackett, Wilder, and Reisch’s script leaves no mysteries around the liaison between the two—but what’s interesting here is that the count seems to be, if not financially dependent on Swana, at least in a subaltern position vis-à-vis the woman, who oftentimes seems to belittle him to the rank of toy-boy as opposed to lover.
That Garbo’s heroine should stand out as stronger than Douglas’ count—a man mired in the toxic gender dynamic one would expect to find the eponymous character in—is groundbreaking in its own right, but Ninotchka also stupefies for Lubitsch’s ability to frame the contrast between Communism and Capitalism in equal terms, mocking both world-views with the same ferocious satire. Garbo’s glacial rebuttal of Douglas’ cosmogony (“you’re the unfortunate product of a doomed culture”) measures up with the way he teases the achievements of her motherland (“I have been fascinated by your five-year plan for the past 15 years”). To think that Hollywood would churn out—a mere 10 years later!—a piece of vitriolic propaganda as My Son John makes Ninotchka look like an extraterrestrial entity from an altogether different universe. That it eventually stood out as single most remarkable moviegoing experience of my first year in Rotterdam isn't an indictment of the festival's official lineup—it's a testament to the singular beauty of this outstanding retrospective.

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