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The Cold War in the Cinema: The Boom in Spy Films in the 1960s, its Causes and Implications | The Celluloid Curtain |

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The Cold War in the Cinema: The Boom in Spy Films in the 1960s, its Causes and Implications

Christoph Classen

/ 7 Minuten zu lesen

The remarkable history of the spy genre from the late 19th century onwards, is due to two closely linked developments: the involvement of increasing numbers of ordinary people in the political process, on the one hand, and the growth of popular mass media on the other.

History re-interpreted: the DEFA film "For Eyes Only" – based on an historical deceit. (© bpb)

No-one can be in any doubt that the 1960s marked a high point in the Cold War. Public opinion was shaken by the building of the Berlin Wall, at the beginning of the decade; and, as we now know, the world was never closer to nuclear war between the superpowers than during the Cuban missile crisis of Autumn 1962. Towards the end of the decade, with the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the Summer of 1968, the Soviet Union once again made it abundantly clear that it wouldn't tolerate its satellite countries taking their 'own path' to socialism: for the time being, then, there was to be no end to that bipolar ice age. In such conditions spies and counter-spies flourished. They had to deal not least with embarrassing incidents like the shooting down of a U2 reconnaissance plane over the Soviet Union in May 1960, when the Americans' clandestine activities were blown wide open and the people responsible were publicly exposed – both trophies of the superior detection powers of the one side as well as symbols of the base objectives of the other.

So it's clear that the background to this realpolitik had a decisive impact of the dynamic development of the spy film genre back then. What was called at the time "Spy Mania" – the boom in specialised spy thriller films, TV series and novels – found an ideal breeding ground in the climate of the Cold War, with its uneasy atmosphere of mutual surveillance, its covert operations on the one hand and thunderous, hostile propaganda on the other. This spy mania embraced a broad spectrum of disparate styles and themes, from the ambitious, analytical or satirical debate, through the largely de-politicised commercial film, to the politically motivated essay on conspiracy theory – all of which turned this popular genre itself into a weapon of the confrontation between the two world systems.

1. Politics and entertainment: the rise of the Spy Thriller

It would be to under-rate the significance of the boom in spy thrillers, to see it as just the child of contemporary political events. That this isn't the case is proved by the fact that its popularity was already well established before the beginning of the Cold War – people had long been fascinated with the subject, with notions of secrecy and treachery, and this fascination has hardly diminished to this day.

The secret service community: film poster for "For Eyes Only". (© The Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive)

The remarkable success enjoyed by the spy thriller since the late 19th century went hand in hand with two closely related developments – and this was not accidental. There was firstly the 'socialisation' of politics, in other words, the inclusion of ever greater numbers of the general public in the political process, and secondly the growth of popular mass media. Demands for democratic participation and partnership by ordinary people forced into the open the remaining hidden, secret organs of the State, and gave the emerging political masses the chance to scrutinise their legitimacy. At the same time, the aura of the clandestine, of secrecy and deception, seemed to fit to perfection the dramatic bill of fare being served up by the mass media. Certainly, the logic of both politics and media came together early on, at the latest by 1903, when Erskine Childers published his bestselling The Riddle of the Sands, in which he powerfully evoked the "German peril". The format and the cutting edge of successful popular fiction here became intertwined with the political nationalism and the anxieties that dominated the end of the Victorian era. As a result, the spy thriller became an established element of popular British and American fiction: the international tensions created in the course of the two world wars provided the background to the novels of, for example, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John Buchan. They produced consistently imaginative versions of reality, which in the main did not bear closer inspection. The attractiveness of these fictional confrontations, combined with the simple necessity for suspense, surely lay in the contemporary desire to establish a sense of self, to simplify the intricacies of, and make sense of, and come to terms with, a dramatically changing world.

2. Spy Films in Eastern and Western Europe

That analysis is also valid for our perceptions of the Cold War in a Europe divided by the Iron Curtain. But it was not only this, and the twofold nature of the later conflict with its clear divisions between friend and foe, which contributed to the spy thriller becoming such a favourite in popular fiction. The academic Eva Horn, in her excellent book The Secret War (Der geheime Krieg), which examines treachery and espionage in modern novels and feature films, has drawn attention to the fundamental similarity between the Cold War and fiction. It was a 'war in the mind', in which the participants worked with hypothetical scenarios and projected their own thinking onto their respective opponents. What is in normal circumstances the business of the writer – the invention of material, imagining every possibility from the least to worst case scenario – became an important element in the work of the security services.

In addition to these formal similarities, there was another influential factor in the spy boom of the 1960s: the widespread adaptation of spy novels for the TV and cinema screen. As cinema was facing strong competition from the newer medium of television, the film industry countered with lavish productions that fully exploited the technical wizardry not yet available to TV. The UK-US James Bond films in particular – based on the Ian Fleming novels (1962 et seq.) – were highly successful and owed that success to special effects and action-packed screenplays which had a major influence on the general style of the spy film.

It's worth noting that the majority of these western productions ignored politics: on the contrary, although the Cold War was the reason for the tension in such films, it was a mere shadowy backdrop to the action. Other films, such as the Spanish-Portuguese-German co-production High Season For Spies (1966), followed a more obviously calculated line: they sought simply to copy the successful formula of the non-political Bond films in order to make a profit. Generally, as the European film industry was under pressure to make money, it was forced to produce films which did not at all follow the logic of the Cold War. But it was certainly not the case that these films didn´t convey a subliminal message of the superiority of western consumer society.

There is here an essential difference from films produced in Eastern Europe. Economic considerations were not central there: as a result, the industry wasn't based on satisfying public demand. Spy films were therefore only produced occasionally; and when they were, they adhered closely to the politics of the Cold War and usually openly trumpeted the superior values of socialism. Often these films were merely clumsy attempts to win the propaganda war, as with the long-winded East German production For Eyes Only – Streng geheim (1963), in which the central story is the exposure of an (allegedly real) NATO invasion plan.

Thus, in the socialist camp, the spy film was in reality a means of critical reflection on the logic of the Cold War – something which the more demanding western films also did occasionally. One example is the film of John le Carré's bestseller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (GB 1965). It portrays the work of the security services in east and west as deeply cynical and inhumane, a notorious trade in which the hard-fought values of both sides are betrayed. The point of the story lies in the fact that both sides are shown as being as amoral as the other: the clash of values is only a pretext; each resembles the other in their nihilistic behaviour; and the sole motive for conflict is their mutual striving for supremacy. Such a fundamental critique of the premises and logic of the Cold War, which had actually in its way been a political success story, was not usual in the west. But the contemporary style in the 1960s was more tongue-in-cheek, satirical, distanced and the films less politically ambitious than in the films from the socialist camp.

A survey of spy films from the 1960s demonstrates conclusively that the rapid growth of the genre is a multi-faceted phenomenon. In the west the film industry was – more or less professionally – fulfilling a clearly existing social demand for an entertaining portrayal of the invisible, covert side of the Cold War, and in so doing, largely avoiding any overt political content. At the same time, however, more aspiring producers used the subject matter both as a means of personal critical reflection and for a fundamental political critique of their own side. Only a decade before this would hardly have been imaginable in most western countries: it would not have resonated at all with public opinion. The popularity of spy stories didn´t go unnoticed in the east either, but films made there had always to conform to a pre-determined political stance. Although individual eastern European countries gradually took diverging paths, they had always to take account of their inherently narrow social and economic dynamic.


Eva Horn: Der geheime Krieg. Verrat, Spionage und moderne Fiktion. Fischer: Frankfurt a. M. 2007.

Patrick Major: 'Coming in from the Cold: The GDR in the British Spy Thriller'. In: Arnd Bauerkämper (ed.): Britain and the GDR. Relations and Perceptions in a Divided World. Philo: Wien 2002, S. 339-52.

Toby Miller: Spyscreen. Espionage on Film and TV from the 1930s to the 1960s. Oxford University Press: Oxford 2003.

Hans-Peter Schwarz: Phantastische Wirklichkeit. Das 20. Jahrhundert im Spiegel des Polit-Thrillers. DVA: München 2006.

Bernd Stöver: "Das ist die Wahrheit, die volle Wahrheit". Befreiungspolitik im DDR-Spielfilm der 1950er und 1960er Jahre. In: Thomas Lindenberger (ed.): Massenmedien im Kalten Krieg. Akteure, Bilder, Resonanzen. Böhlau: Köln. u.a. 2006, pp 49-76.

Christoph Classen, b. 1965 in Hagen, Westphalia. Since 2009 project leader at the Department for Contemporary History of the Media and the Information Society, Centre for Contemporary History, Potsdam. Research specialisms are, amongst others: media history, memory studies, and 20th century political culture.