Ludmila and her husband Fedor are two Soviet spies who have been working undercover in Germany for years. After their successful work during the Second World War they quickly made their way up into the highest business circles of the German Federal Republic where those in charge, supported by the Americans, are helping to add a new sheen to Germany following 1945 - and are prepared to use military means against the Soviet Union if necessary...
Starling and Lyre / Skvorets i Lira is a lavish production, expensively filmed in CinemaScope, with extravagant sets and costumes. Production was completed in 1974. Director Grigori Aleksandrov was one of the grand old men of Soviet cinema; he worked alongside the legendary Sergei Eisenstein as co-director on October / Oktjabr, (1927) and The General Line / Staroe i Novoe (1929, a.k.a. Old and New). In 1934 he was in the vanguard of the so-called 'Red Hollywood' with his film The Happy Boys, and he went on to make several more very successful American-style musical comedies. The female lead in Starling and Lyre is played by Lyubov Orlova, one of the great prima donnas of Soviet cinema – a long-time star, who was also Aleksandrov's wife. So, Starling and Lyre was conceived as a real blockbuster, aimed at a wide, international audience.
About the MovieStarling and Lyra
Original Title: Skvorets i Lira
Soviet Union 1974, 142 min., subtitles
Director: Grigori Aleksandrov
Cast: Lyubov Orlova, Pyotr Velyaminov, Nikolai Grinko et al.
It was all the more surprising, then, that after just a few performances, this major production was hurriedly withdrawn and banned from Soviet cinemas. It was not seen again in the former USSR until the 1990s, when it was shown on Russian television for the first and only time. It was never shown again and there have been no further cinema screenings in Russia either. So why did a film that cost so much in money and resources vanish, to be locked up in the archives?
To answer this question, first we need to take a look at the plot. The storyline of Starling and Lyre revolves around a married couple, Lyudmila and Fyodor Grekov, who, as well as being man and wife, are both secret agents, codenamed Lyre (Lira) and Starling (Skvorets) respectively. They have spent the Second World War working undercover in Germany – and for them it was a 'good war': indeed, so successful that the Soviets decide to prolong their mission in Germany after 1945, even though neither has seen the other for some time and Lira knows nothing of her partner's fate after the German surrender. He has in fact remained in the western part of occupied Berlin. Both, independently, work their way up into the highest echelons of West German industry, where powerful men are busy trying to restore Germany's former glory, supported by the Americans, who are prepared to use military force if necessary to achieve this goal.
There are at least two possible reasons here, which would explain why this film vanished from the cinema screen for so long. The first might just have to do with the age of the female lead, Lyubov Orlova. She plays Lira, who is around thirty years old when the story begins and has to age by some twenty years during the course of the film. But in reality, Orlova was at this time well over seventy, which fact must surely have had some impact on the film's credibility when it first opened. In addition, the film also looked old-fashioned; technically, it's behind the best that was being achieved at the time, and considering what was otherwise on offer from Soviet cinema in the mid-1970s, it's hardly ground-breaking.
But it seems unlikely that such issues of quality alone were responsible for the decision to withdraw the film almost as soon as it had been released. There's a second reason, which appears much more convincing, and that is that Starling and Lyre is one of the most ideologically hard-line films produced during the Cold War. It implies that the Americans are being helped by former German Wehrmacht officers and German businessmen to plan the Third World War. One American liaison officer, for example, puts forward the argument that, although the USA won the war, it did so against the wrong enemy: they should have fought and defeated Russia and not Germany. The insinuation that the Western powers have blatantly warlike aims against the Soviet Union is a major and serious theme in Starling and Lyre. Behind all this stands the film's éminence grise, one S.K. Svigun, who was an important advisor to the production team during the making of the film and was a top KGB operative, the man in charge of war espionage.
The film was originally scheduled for general release in Autumn 1974, after a screening for the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. But shortly before the committee could pass judgment on the film per se, the Günter Guillaume Affair broke in West Germany. Guillaume was a close aide to the German Chancellor, the Social Democrat Willy Brandt; but in reality, he was an East German spy and his unmasking led Brandt to resign the Chancellorship. It was one of the most explosive spy scandals involving the two Germanies. The storyline of Starling and Lyre all too closely reflected this real incident; and the East German leadership was at pains to avoid drawing any more attention to it than could be avoided – so the film, like Hitchcock´s lady, vanished.
With the benefit of hindsight, the hard-line ideology that informs this film is surprising, given the political thaw between East and West that was in progress in the mid-70s; détente and rapprochement were the watchwords of Soviet foreign policy at that time, but Starling and Lyre could in no way claim to play a positive role in furthering that policy.
So, as we can see, this film overtly sets out to be propaganda; there was no attempt to suggest otherwise, and it proves, were proof needed, just how well-adapted the spy film is for this purpose. As is often the case in East European cinema, both Skvorets and Lira work quietly undercover in the West, in enemy territory – here, it's the West German industrial complex – where they infiltrate and blend in unobtrusively. And the spy is a symbolic figure, so it's perhaps hard to think of one better suited to reveal the ideological inferiority and moral collapse of a social order, committed as he is to worming his way undetected into that very lifestyle and living it to the full. In other films of the period, this policy of showing the wealth and profligate life-style of the West in all its garishness, had the unintended outcome of giving the citizens of the Eastern Bloc a chance to see just what they were missing. Starling and Lyre certainly does not fall into that trap!