Spy films document the spirit of their time: a world of ideological trench warfare and nuclear menace. Today, in the age of Al-Qaida, WikiLeaks and the confrontation over the Iranian nuclear programme, they still have a depressing ring of truth. This discussion, featuring well-known experts, provides some intriguing food for thought.
Konrad Jarausch, the German-American historian from the Free University, Berlin;
Christoph Classen of the Centre for Contemporary Historical Research, Potsdam;
Andreas von Bülow, author and former politician; and
Oliver Baumgarten, co- curator of "The Celluloid Curtain".
In the chair: Claudia Lenssen, journalist and film critic.
Claudia Lenssen: The theme of "The Celluloid Curtain" is the way East and West have viewed the role of the spy. Oliver Baumgarten, can I ask you first, the questions that immediately occur to me: were many similar films made on both sides of the Iron Curtain? And were people on both sides equally interested by the popular figure of the spy?
Oliver Baumgarten: There was huge interest on both sides of the Iron Curtain in both the spy and his motivation, but the two sides came at the issue from quite different angles: the West European perspective was quite different from that of the East. In Western Europe, where there was a commercial film industry with an already very large output of entertainment films by the 1960s, the spy film was one of the most popular genres of all. For example, a vast number of co-productions were made by Spanish, French, Italian and West German film companies. One book tried to list all these so-called Eurospy productions and came up with a total of 600 for Western Europe alone between 1961 and 1969. So the spy film was highly popular in the West and in due course reached its peak with the James Bond films. But in the East, how and why these films were made was quite different...it's difficult to talk of spy films as a mainstream genre there because there was no commercial film industry as such in most of those countries. There was no commercial pressure to produce films as popular entertainment.
Claudia Lenssen: But were the governments there interested in making spy films, or was this kind of film not wanted?
Oliver Baumgarten: There are two things we need to consider here. The spy film was a perfect way of demonstrating to Eastern audiences how depraved the West was, that's to say, ostentatious, showy and superficial: expensively-dressed people always partying, drinking alcohol, driving fast cars and bedding fast women. This dissolute lifestyle could however come across not just in a negative light, but as very attractive. And this is what happened, with the result that many people actually wanted to see how we lived in the West. Spy films became a way of observing life in the West, which was not at all what the ruling elite of these countries intended. On the other hand, there were films like the Soviet production Starling and Lyre, which was blatantly used as a vehicle for propaganda.
Claudia Lenssen: Christoph Classen, we've just heard mentioned the biggest name in spy films: James Bond...the cliché, the stereotype, the spy of spies, everyone knows him: the cunning, sexy secret agent, the man with the smart toys and the latest hi-tech weapons, on duty in exotic foreign places. Why, apart from the obvious things I´ve just mentioned, why was he so popular? What was it about the situation back in the 60s when the films first came out, what historical reasons were there?
Christoph Classen: I think that two things came together in the 1960s. Firstly, I should stress that the secret agent has been around for a long time, he made his appearance at the turn of the 20th century. The first real spy novel is The Riddle of the Sands, by the Irish writer, Erskine Childers. In point of fact, it's really a piece of patriotic propaganda disguised as an adventure story, a thriller. The spy novel then took off during the First World War and the inter-war years. Its peak of popularity in the 60s was because of the conditions of the Cold War: there was a whole combination of circumstances, among them the rapid growth in espionage activity. What gradually became crystal clear, however, was the fact that we in the West had, relatively speaking, easily identifiable adversaries. And that fits in with these popular stories, which diluted the reality of the Cold War, to show complex situations as simple ones, with everything reduced basically to good versus evil. Now, the second point is to do with the cinema and the way it was changing during the 1960s: new processes were being developed, special effects, widescreen, colour and so on. This permitted new production techniques, which hadn't been possible before. Added to this, the cinema was under huge pressure from television and needed something new to attract audiences. Enter the spy film: it hit the political nail on the head and it dealt with something that had a strong appeal, because it was all about secrecy, scandal and conspiracy. I think the spy film hit the big time in the 60s because of these two developments.
Claudia Lenssen: Konrad Jarausch, that's a media-based analysis of the reasons for the spy film's popularity: its attraction as a genre that was, at first sight, not about politics, but pure entertainment, light-hearted escapism. Even so, the split between East and West, the mutual hostility played a role, the model of good versus evil is clear. Your interests are in the cultural sphere, so what can you tell us about this enemy figure that was created in the spy film... why was it so popular?
Konrad Jarausch: The Cold War is often portrayed as simply an arms race or a military stand-off. But it was more than that, it was a contest on both sides for the loyalty of the citizens in the two political camps. The population on each side had to be kept on side. There were left-wing intellectuals in the West, who believed Socialism was a better system; in the East, there were dissidents, who wanted to promote the western concept of Human Rights. So the Cold War was all about each side wanting its citizens to conform: everything had to be clear-cut. Because films are designed to entertain, they´re a good medium for achieving this: the audience develops an empathy with characters that are portrayed in a positive light, they step into their shoes, as it were, and accept their view of the world and the way they react to events. So the internal political dimension is this pressure to conform, which wasn´t just achieved through banning the Communist Party or attacking the Social Democrats for collaborating with their sister party in the East...
Claudia Lenssen: – You're obviously talking about West Germany here?
Konrad Jarausch: Yes, the Federal Republic on the one hand, but also the GDR, East Germany, on the other. The dissidents there and the members of the GDR Bloc parties – the old democratic parties that were co-erced into the ruling communist-led coalition – these people had to be brought into line, persuaded to give sufficient support to the Socialist Unity Party, the Communists. That was the internal politics. Externally, it was a matter of avoiding any blurring of the lines: in a polarised world, your opponent is dangerous and when there's an Iron Curtain then the threat must always come from the other side. And this threat is a perception that first has to be instilled into the population. Here in the West, people perceived it one way, if they lived in Berlin or on the Czech border or beside the Berlin Wall. They perceived it quite differently, if they were in Düsseldorf or the Rhineland and the Russians were miles away. Why should anyone in those places feel threatened? So, it was crucial to create this perception of an external danger as a way of getting people's support for spending money on re-equipping the Bundeswehr, the West German Army, or for having nuclear weapons stationed on German soil, these were matters that needed popular support. If that support wasn't there, then the policy wouldn't work. [...]
Claudia Lenssen: So the secret agent acts as a kind of proxy in the this cultural struggle... Andreas von Bülow, if we examine the picture that spy films painted of the world, it poses the question, how did secret agents in the 60s and 70s work, during the Cold War? What was their job, their function? What do we know about the way they really operated?
Andreas von Bülow: First of all, a word about the films. There are war films, westerns, spy films and generally, all these types of film pit good against evil, and this issue is thoroughly explored in any one film, so that the audience is brought round to supporting the right side. In Germany, re-armament took place against the wishes of the majority of people. Nor was there any majority support for a divided Germany. Most people back then believed the four occupation zones should remain as one country and that we had to reach a compromise with the Russians. It was to counter this that the idea of the Soviet Communist threat was built up: the USSR was a power we couldn't negotiate with, it threatened us round every corner with its intention to crush us in a world revolution. So there was a policy of massive indoctrination in the West. The CIA was instructed to get everyone in Western Europe to accept a policy of confrontation. Large amounts of money were set aside for this, about ten percent of the total Marshall Plan was directed into covert operations, not just in Germany but across the whole of Europe. The Americans were very careful about which intellectuals, which writers and film-makers, they supported. The US State Department set up the anti-Communist magazine Der Monat, and organised a huge congress of European intellectuals, the Congress of Cultural Freedom. It was also a time when there was an intensive campaign to explain America to Europeans. There were positive aspects to this, of course, but the intention was to make the confrontation with the Communists acceptable. I'm actually of the opinion that if the victorious allies after the First World War had treated the Weimar Republic the way the allies treated the Federal Republic after the Second World War, then they would have made the Weimar Republic into a decent democratic state. Now, the cruellest sacrifice of American policy after 1945 was without doubt the division of Germany and the imprisonment of the East German population behind barbed wire and the Berlin Wall. This division wasn't Russian policy, it was the Americans who, for their part, wouldn't accept the Russian demand for the neutrality and demilitarisation of Germany. The USA wanted to swing the western part of Germany behind their policy of confrontation with the Soviet Union. That was why they demanded we should have an army of half a million men inside the Western Alliance. Moscow's response was the division of Germany and, ultimately, the Wall. The Cold War was embedded in this deep but thankfully bloodless clash of ideas. But those directly involved could see a whole series of individual tragedies. Back then, more than two thousand people were employed by the German Federal Security Service in the reception camps, analysing the letters being sent across...
Claudia Lenssen: What letters do you mean?
Andreas von Bülow: All mail that was sent across the inner-German border was liable to be opened, read, re-sealed and then sent on again. As time passed, no-one had any real idea, what was to be done with all those security staff. And on the West German side, there were spies, who were 'turned' by the finely tuned counter-intelligence service in the East. As a result, the operations of the Federal German counter-intelligence agency were directed by double-agents! In retrospect, we can now laugh at what went on. But the KGB knew full well that the Nazi's wartime spy organisation Fremde Heere Ost (Foreign Armies East) had approached the CIA after the war; and that its leader, General Reinhard Gehlen, who later became head of the West German Security Service, employed mainly members of the nobility and the SS. So the East German spy machine was able to surreptitiously slip its own agents, people from the same background, into the ranks of the West German agency; on the basis of their excellent inside knowledge, these spies then worked their way up into senior posts, where they could to a greater or lesser degree blindfold the system. On the other hand, the CIA is a totally different kind of secret service, one that's essentially focused on operating below the public 'radar' and without any defined ethics: its aim is to manipulate foreign political parties and systems to come over to the American way of thinking. And in case there should be any doubt about this, just look at the evidence that was given to the Congressional hearings after the Vietnam War.
Konrad Jarausch: I have to disagree on a couple of points here! We shouldn't just accept as fact every report, every claim and every declaration of intent. You´re certainly right about the CIA and the magazine Der Monat and about their Congress of Cultural Freedom. But beside that, you've got to take into account what the East Germans did, with their freedom camps, the trades unions and the way they co-opted intellectuals, right up to Jean-Paul Sartre. There was a vigorous debate on both sides about people's loyalties and commitment. In their more intelligent moments, the Americans quietly took the lead and sought out West Germans who were on their side, and gave them financial support. But if you look at the world only through the eyes of the spy, that's just a bit too restricted an outlook for me!
Christoph Classen: We live in societies, where people think they're entitled, as far as possible, to know everything about their government's policies. Democratic societies are built on the idea of the people being sovereign, that they have the final say. Even in the so-called 'dictatorships of the masses' during the 20th century, the element of participation was very strongly developed. Given that fact, any kind of secrecy is a problem. If the people are in charge, but the state keeps things from them, then it gets tricky. Normal political journalism, for example, very soon runs into difficulties: when claims are made, which can't be rebutted, when someone says this happened, or he did this, or she gave that order, then before you know it, the lawyers are buzzing round your head like wasps. So the fictional spy drama makes it possible to take up these issues in a kind of protected space. You can make an assertion, then turn it into a compelling story. The stories can be delusional or based on genuine circumstantial evidence, the spy film allows the imagination free rein.
Andreas von Bülow: Yes, but then we get into the realm of pure fantasy, whilst in the real world, things are basically much more subtle...
Claudia Lenssen: We've been talking on the one hand about operational structures and activities, in which an individual spy acts as a kind of agitator, a propagandist... by degrees he controls, he infiltrates, he serves an overarching ideology, which is both secret and necessary for political power. This, as Christoph Classen has indicated, is difficult to justify to an electorate committed to openness and participation. Konrad Jarausch, what's your judgment on this? Do spy films give us mythologised heroes, who mislead us about what they really get up to, as Andreas von Bülow has so clearly suggested?
Konrad Jarausch: Day to day, the job of the spy is shadier, more trivial and also more boring than what we see on the screen, otherwise no-one would go to watch these films. The real-life spy is part of an ongoing process, which involves applying legal and overt influence on people as well as pursuing less than legal interests, working in the field of commerce, making contacts, planting stories and reports in newspapers and other news organisations. In this continuum of activity, the individual little spy is perhaps just the final link in a long chain. So it has to be drummed into him, that what he´s doing is highly important, that the fate of all humanity hangs on his success. But if he's just a humble so-and-so, who rows with his wife or – figuratively speaking – gets screwed by some common little tart, then that's not exciting cinema.
Christoph Classen: My feeling is that many popular films made in the West, which don't make any real demands on the audience, superficially at least haven't a political dimension at all, they're just thrillers. If you want to be rude, you could also call them 'pubescent fantasies'... it's all about fast cars and gorgeous young women who throw themselves at you. You're here today and in Acapulco tomorrow, nothing's impossible, every last thing's available to you. It's a life of high tension and high adventure. But this internationalist vision, this concept of availability constitutes an important element in commercial cinema. There's also clearly an ideological message underlying it, though it's not in any way outwardly political in the sense of being propaganda. This message is about the consumer society, which had become completely accepted in Europe in the 1960s. If there ever was such a thing as a utopian consumer society, then it was about the availability of everything: of goods, of time, of space and so on. You had everything at your fingertips. And this message – the good life in a free consumer society – is very neatly interwoven into these outwardly un-political films. This same message seems to me to include an overtly chauvinist attitude to relationships, in which the men as a rule are dominant and women are reduced to the role of mere playthings: it's a sexual cliché we can recognise from the late-19th and early-20th century, the mysterious, wanton woman, she who cannot be trusted.
Andreas von Bülow: But this picture of Western consumerism had an exceptional influence on East Germany, just like the adverts they saw beamed in every evening from the West on their TV screens. I remember a driver from the Bundestag (the Federal Parliament in Bonn), telling me he had stopped going to East Berlin to visit his relatives, because they turned up their noses at the chocolate he bought for them at his ALDI store. All they wanted were the expensive top brands they saw advertised on TV. It had an incredible psychological impact, and in the same way, this was how these spy films affected people.
Christoph Classen: Yes, Kurt Schumacher's (former Social Democratic leader) theory of the magnetic attraction of an economically successful West Germany to the East did work. And it was most especially a problem for those who were making socialist-realist spy films over there. If you followed the conventions of the spy film as it was in the 1960s, and showed the West as it was, the end result was a message that contradicted the social values you had to adhere to and were supposed to convey in your film: the promotion of collectivism and the suppression of individualism and consumerism... and so on.
Konrad Jarausch: True, but in the final analysis, that made the spy film something that was interchangeable, because the enemies were interchangeable. The same happened later on with James Bond. When Vietnam and the internal American battles over racial equality and feminism made the Cold War itself a problematic concept, this kind of cinematic confrontation was no longer an option. At that point all that was left was a spy figure, frantically trying to save humanity from some indefinable monster, maybe a Nazi, maybe a Japanese or Asiatic type, who could tell. At that point, the spy film started to fall apart.
Claudia Lenssen: If we just look again at Andreas von Bülow's analysis – the ability of both secret services to block each others' activities, the ability of both to manipulate all the information we're given – do we take from this that the age of the secret agent, of the hero who spies on the world on our behalf, that his time is past? Does the spy film still have anything going for it?
Oliver Baumgarten: I'm not sure I can give you an accurate answer to that. I know too little about today's secret agents, but I can readily imagine that there are a lot more of them simply pushing paper around the system.
Claudia Lenssen: Certainly their jobs and lifestyle must have changed...
Oliver Baumgarten: Absolutely. And on screen as well. The era of the classic secret agent is over; you hardly ever see them now. Take a film like The Bourne Identity, which starred Matt Damon: it's a spy film after a fashion, but this kind of film focuses on something quite different. In truth, this film and others like it show a mistrust of spies – on our side as well as on the other side.
Claudia Lenssen: – so we´re talking about an identity crisis.
Oliver Baumgarten: That´s right, it´s about loss of identity, angst, fear, all to do yet again with a sense of being under surveillance, like in the Doctor Mabuse films of the 60s. We've come full circle.
Claudia Lenssen: We've talked about how the spy film developed against the backdrop of the stand-off between two political systems. Since then, the geo-political situation has fundamentally shifted. Today we could imagine a Chinese superspy or an Indian computer hacker waging cyber-war from his laptop. Technologies have changed so much that, if we think of just the nuclear powers, that power balance is also much changed. So is the era of the spy as a cultural icon over? What´s your opinion, Konrad Jarausch?
Konrad Jarausch: At the very least, the image of the spy is fundamentally different. A good indicator of this is what I call 'airplane fiction'...
Claudia Lenssen: Airplane fiction?
Konrad Jarausch: Yes, airplane fiction, those paperbacks you can buy in airport terminals while you're waiting for your transatlantic flight. Years ago they had swastikas on the cover: the authors wrote all kinds of rubbish in them. As long as there was a swastika on the front, people would buy them. Then it was a hammer and sickle and a red star. Back then, the storylines merged into one other in a kind of literary osmosis... but now, the storylines go all over the place: you get all manner of conspiracies, beginning with the Da Vinci Code, we have fanatics galore, cultural conflicts with Muslims, assassination attempts, economic conspiracies, usually masterminded by Chinese or Indians. There's no longer any clear vision. All that's left is mystery, menace and might – my three M's of the spy film, though they're very different now from what they used to be.
Oliver Baumgarten: What you´re describing are features that appear even more obviously in other film genres, crime films, for example.
Claudia Lenssen: I'd like to thank everyone for coming along and taking part. We've ranged far and wide, but I think what happens over the next few years will prove whether the cinema spy is going to become just a memory, or whether new personas and new heroes will emerge.
Transcribed by Mirko Wiermann