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Set during the fading glory of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the film tells of the rise and fall of Alfred Redl (Brandauer), an ambitious young officer who proceeds up the ladder to become head of the Secret Police only to become ensnared in political deception.Written by
Dawn M. Barclift
Reviewers who emphasize the cinematic excellence of this film - superb casting and acting, subtle dramatics, beautiful cinematography - are absolutely correct. But, and this is a very big but, those who see the film for the first time (or watch it repeatedly, as I do) should be aware that as a presentation of the Colonel Redl espionage case, it is preposterous.
The best starting point for evaluating the film's historical quotient is to go back to E. E. Kisch's reporting on the case. Kisch, a colorful Prague journalist for the German-language newspaper "Bohemia", broke the case in 1913, several days after Redl's "compulsory suicide" and a misleading report put out by the General Staff in a Viennese newspaper. Within days the efforts of the General Staff to mislead the public about what had happened was undermined by Kisch and then by other reporting within Austria- Hungary and abroad. Kisch came back to the story after WWI (in which he served as a corporal in the infantry, then, after being wounded, as a lieutenant in the army's press service), examined documents, and interviewed Redl's colleagues and participants in the case. This resulted in a short book, published in Berlin in 1924 (the 1931 Czech-German film in the IMDb list credits Kisch as a screenwriter and uses the title of his book for the film's title).
There is an English translation of this book in a 1997 bio-anthology of Kisch and his work as the star of "reportage" by the American writer, Harold B. Segel. The other English source for information about Redl's life and career is a 1959 "interpretive biography" by Robert Asprey, "The Panther's Feast"(Asprey managed to get access to ministerial archives with information on the case that had never been seen by journalists or "outsiders" before). John Osborne cited Asprey's book as a source of information for his Redl play, "A Patriot for Me", which, though totally fanciful, gives a more credible psychological portrait of Redl than Szabo does. And there are half-a-dozen books about the case written in German between the 1920s and just a few years ago (to Austrians Redl is "the spy of the (20th) century"). The consequences of Redl's years of very well- paid espionage on behalf of Russia were assumed by his contemporaries to have been devastating at the outset of WWI, though historians argue about just how damaging his treachery was.
Szabo creates a portrait of a self-conflicted man destroyed by an opportunistic and self-centered dynasty and government – a man set up for false charges. This is the complete opposite of the truth. While the General Staff was remiss in its opportunity to investigate while Redl was still alive (demanding "honor-code" suicide instead) and went out of its way to suppress the truth, it eventually got out, and the man at the center of the real story should arouse neither sympathy nor admiration: he was venal, crafty, and ice-cold during his approximately 10 years of espionage, betraying classified military information and selling out numerous Austrian agents to Russian intelligence. He did it to fund an extravagant lifestyle (whether or not he was originally blackmailed into spying by the Russians). Historically, he ranks with other high-ranking "moles" within a nation's intelligence service (akin to Kim Philby, for instance).
Szabo's portrait of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the alleged mastermind of a conspiracy to ensnare Redl, is also ridiculous. As unlikable and prejudiced as he was, the Successor, like his uncle, the Emperor, dreaded military scandals, and would hardly have created a plan to publicize a very demoralizing one, given Redl's high position and glorious reputation within the General Staff. In response to the discovery of Redl's treason he went after the General Staff with a vengeance, though, for practical and political reasons he could not have its Chief, General Conrad von Hoetzendorf, dismissed at the time. But, Franz Ferdinand, who thought that Hungarians were the major internal threat to the monarchy's stability, has always been a popular villain in Hungary.
Reviewers who comment on the "betrayal theme" in the movie are also right. Szabo's version presents a fictionalized Redl story that reflects the repressive Hungarian state and its obnoxious secret political police in the 1950s, the period of his coming to age and his entry into film-making, when he too was compromised by the system. The Kubinyi family connection of the film is also fictional, possibly based on novels by Robert Musil or Sandor Marai, both well-known in the Hungary of Szabo's youth. In life Redl had been through a series of homosexual dalliances with both civilians and other military men, and one of the factors in his downfall was a rash decision he made during a romantic crisis with his protégé (and former paramour) , Lieutenant Stefan Horinka of the 7th Uhlan Regiment. Though different names are used, this relationship is at least depicted in the 1931 and 1955 Redl films.
The events of Redl's fatal day (May 24th-25th, 1913) are an exciting crime and detective story, completely missing in Szabo's film, where Kubinyi is sent as a messenger demanding suicide and Redl agonizes because he knows he is not guilty of treason. In reality, hours after his detection as a spy, Redl was confronted by a commission of four officers who supplied him with a pistol, which he used within several hours to blow his brains out. That's the Redl story, though more recent historians have discovered many flaws in Kisch's version and there are still some unknowns due to destroyed files (done in order to protect General Staff officer reputations) and though Kisch went to his grave in 1948 without fully revealing his "inside" sources of information on the case.
So, viewers beware. While Oberst Redl is truly a wonderful film, it strays so far from the record that its presentation of the case is historically meaningless. The meaning comes from Szabo's experience, not Redl's.
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