The film is set in a large Western European city that bears the hallmarks of Berlin. Using a pseudonym, Bulgarian super agent Emil Boev is hired by the company Zodiac to cover up a spy ring. Boev is a "true agent", smart, sexy and fitted out with every weapon necessary. After a year he wins the trust of his boss Evans and tries to flush out the spy ring. He is supported by his attractive assistant Edit, but she, however, is playing a double game.
The Bulgarian contribution to "The Celluloid Curtain" has the wonderfully lyrical title There is Nothing Finer than Bad Weather / Nyama nishto po-hubavo ot loshoto vreme and is also at the same time one of the most wonderfully lyrical films in the series. The usual hard-line attitudes of the Cold War and the more obviously typical features of the spy film take a back seat and what dominates is a cool, frivolous tone, which is reminiscent of the French nouvelle vague of the 1960s. There are few harsh contrasts in this film, which was shot in black-and-white but so well directed that it seems infused only with subtle shades of grey. The mood is sustained not by any ideological preconceptions, but by subtleties of lighting, love-play and music.
The story-line can be neatly and concisely told: Maurice Roland is hired by the electronics firm Zodiac, which, as he suspects and as rapidly becomes clear, is in fact the cover name for a foreign spy organisation. His job is to tell his bosses whatever he can about the Communists, because "if they win, it's all over for us and our shareholders." Maurice, however, is not what he seems: he's the Bulgarian super-spy Emil Boev and he very quickly learns his way around the company and the western city it's located in, which – coincidentally! – looks just like Berlin. Although he has to stand helplessly by and see his colleague-in-arms Lyubo lose his life in pursuit of the local CIA-network, Boev goes on to win the trust of the firm's boss Evans, his deputy, Warner, and of their colleague Konrad Reimann. Finally, he's able to make off with a set of important documents.
This is not, though, a case of 'all's well that ends well' for at the heart of the story lies an indescribable melancholy, a sadness that grows out of the gaudy lifestyle Maurice lives and from his impossible love affair with his secretary, Edith; it is a time when people have always to reckon with bad weather and, as Maurice complains, shouldn't expect to find much happiness along the way. Edith, as it turns out, is also playing a double game: she's a spy, but from East Germany. She understands his pessimism as a kind of 'philosophy of resignation', but she also likes the song There is Nothing Finer than Bad Weather, the title of which is the film's theme, a theme which reflects the reality of their lives. As the rain teems down on an avenue of gaunt trees, they spend their most intimate moments together.
These bleak love scenes in the rain should not be dismissed as mere directorial whim: it's a reasonable assumption that the director, Metodi Andonov, is using them to create an atmosphere akin to that in other films by other east European directors, especially those from the 1960s – perhaps the Slovene Botjan Hladnik's Dancing in the Rain / Ples v deju (1961) or Marlen Khutsiev's July Rain / Jul´skij dozhd´ (USSR, 1966). Andonov had already shown just how good a director he was in 1968 with The White Room / Byalata staya; immediately following There is Nothing Finer than Bad Weather, films such as the nationally and internationally acclaimed The Goat Horn / Koziyat Rog (1972) and The Great Boredom / Golyamata Skuka (1973) were further proof that his finely drawn personal style of film-making did not mean that he couldn't also achieve success in mainstream cinema genres.
Metodi Georgiev Andonov (1932-1974) graduated from the Sofia Academy of Dramatic Art in 1955 after studying theatre direction. Before entering the film industry he directed productions at the Dramatic Theatre in Burgas and at the Satirical Theatre in Sofia: he was responsible for some of the best theatre work in Bulgaria. The Goat Horn brought him a worldwide reputation as the top Bulgarian film director. His films are noteworthy for the excellent actors he worked with. Georgi Georgiev-Getz, in particular, makes brilliant use of gesture and facial expression to lend both huge charm and cool, under-stated sexiness to the role of Emil Boev / Maurice Roland. He demonstrates a supreme subtlety in his command of the spy genre, a fact which has often been commented on by the critics.
If the generic east European spy film has tended by and large to avoid the excesses of western thrillers, which would have resembled too closely commercial entertainment or pulp-fiction cinema, There is Nothing Finer than Bad Weather is by contrastonly a distant cousin of what was normally produced in the socialist camp. Instead of countless hi-tech gadgets, Maurice totes a simple pair of binoculars: what's more, he uses them the wrong way round when he's spying on Edith as she comes out of the shower. Instead of the voice-overs and other trendy effects deployed by the East German classic For Eyes Only – Streng geheim (1963, dir. János Veiczi) to re-create the multi-lingual world of espionage, the dialogue here is exclusively Bulgarian. Instead of the manifestly allusive exchanges we hear in For Eyes Only [(Hansen) "May I draw something to your attention?" (woman) "Meaning?" (Hansen) "Meaning me!"], in There is Nothing Finer than Bad Weather, everyday activities and gestures predominate: a gun is slipped into a briefcase, a bribe is given to an old Nazi, a cable is cut, information is passed on in a cigarette filter... it's stylish, above all gentlemanly. Not even when Maurice is unmasked does he resort to violent action; the Zodiac company is for him morally bankrupt ("You´re so corrupt, you employed a foreign spy purely for your own advantage"), so he sees it as entirely appropriate calmly to pursue a campaign of blackmail against Evans, the boss, which allows him to save his own life, whilst sacrificing those of his colleagues in the company, whom he sets up as unwitting accessories to his double-dealing.
The energy with which the various elements of intrigue are woven together, and the way they play out almost as a side issue to the love interest, comes in the first instance from Georgiev-Getz's clever acting and Dimo Kolarov's casual, light, almost cheeky camera work; but it's also in large measure due to Bogomil Rainov's screenplay. Rainov (1919-2007) was a poet, author and art historian. He joined the Communist Party in 1944 and served as Cultural Attaché in the Bulgarian Embassy in Paris from 1953 to 1960. In spite of his reputation as a notorious hardliner, he remained extremely popular because of his spy and detective stories. Emil Boev, who appears in eight novels, became a cult throughout the Soviet bloc, whilst Rainov created a whole genre of literary criticism of crime writing, based on his own so-called black novels. Although he was censured by many as a hard social realist (he was called 'a brute' and a 'man-eater'); and although he was criticised as 'aesthetically controversial', (for dabbling in Theosophy, Indian philosophy and Humanism), he could nonetheless face down these critics because of his comparatively long experience abroad, which he was able to draw on when it came to detailed descriptions of how people lived in Venice, Lausanne or Geneva, in Paris, Copenhagen or London.
Except for a few linking shots, the 'fake Berlin' location of There is Nothing Finer than Bad Weather is actually filmed entirely inside Bulgaria. This creates some problems, stemming from the country's remarkably old-fashioned way of life: for example, the young girls who draw charming pictures with chalk and the slightly decrepit villas that line roads full of Russian Ladas. But caricature is kept to a minimum and what emerges is close enough to reality to work. The plush carpet where Edith settles down to read her fashion magazines, the gramophone on which she plays her Julie Driscoll records; the hippy party, beating out the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival; even the bar, where Edith and Maurice sit listening to the gloomy music of There is Nothing Finer than Bad Weather; in all these scenes, the 'western' ambiance is authentic, and portrayed not at all negatively. The spying and intrigue are set to a jazzy and sympathetic original score by Boris Karadimchev. The music prompts the main characters to muse upon a life, in which ultimately everyone becomes a spy, where doom-laden voices warn of the 'end of humanity'. In all this, we can perceive signs and themes beginning to creep into the intellectual circles of east European society, that presaged today's ideas about globalisation and internationalisation.
If we examine the honesty, the self-assuredness and the melancholy atmosphere that pervade this film, compared to the mainstream of east European spy films, we're immediately aware that what we're watching is a genuine, filmic attempt at rapprochement, something which was well under way in the political sphere by 1971: negotiations aimed at improving German-German relations, arrangements for troop reductions in NATO, discussions on a German-Soviet non-aggression pact and the normalisation of relations. Even Bulgaria, in every other way the unswervingly orthodox satellite state, began to undergo some social change, engineered by Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of the Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov – and co-incidentally, a friend of Bogomil Rainov. She used her position and influence to soften party attitudes to cultural life. Andonov's film is an example of 'cultural renewal' caused by a shift in attitudes both at home and abroad. The word communism is spoken only once in this film; otherwise, what we see and hear is determined by the artistic nature of the themes and ideas of the spy film... and by life in bad weather: the wily but sad agent, trudging through a hostile but strangely intimate landscape. Nowhere is there a sense of explicit threat; there are rain-soaked views across the Wall (but looking back into East Berlin): would a love affair be any easier over there?
Original Title: Nyama nishto po-hubavo ot loshoto vreme
Bulgaria 1971, 129 min., subtitles
Director: Metodi Andonov
Cast: Georgi Georgiev-Getz, Elena Rainova, Kosta Tsonev et al.