Film: Colonel Redl

Written and directed by Istvan Szabo

Orion Classics

Journalists have dubbed 1985 the “Year of the Traitor.” The turncoats I’ve read about all seem to be slightly more ambitious versions of street hustlers who sidle up to you with stolen watches fastened to the insides of their coats. Whatever happened to the idealistic traitor who imagined he was saving the West from its own decadence? Shall we see no more Philbys, Burgesses, or Rosenbergs?

In his dour and intelligent film, Colonel Redl, the Hungarian writer-director Istvan Szabo — whose earlier film Mephisto won an Academy Award — invites us to consider treason as a product of a lover’s quarrel with the state. Just as a scorned lover flails out at the one who spurns him, so the Austrian pre-World War I patriot, Alfred Redl, gives away secret fortress positions to a Russian agent because his patriotism has been impugned by the very power he loves and longs to serve: the Hapsburg autocracy.

Once, when an aide-de-camp to Franz Joseph embarked upon a catalogue of a certain person’s civic virtues, the emperor impatiently interrupted: “Yes, yes, yes. I know the fellow’s a patriot. But is he a patriot for me?

His Majesty was being neither illogical nor unduly egomaniacal. In their book, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Allen Janik and Stephen Toulmin noted “. . . the unshakable commitment of the ruling dynasty to the Hapsburg concept of Hausmacht — the idea that the Hapsburgs were the instruments of God on Earth. The destiny of Austria-Hungary in Europe, and even the very physical structure of the capital city, were to a great extent determined by the penultimate incarnation of that idea, the Emperor Francis Joseph.” Certainly, for an empire in which different cultures and loyalties (Serbian, Croation, Hungarian, Jewish) met but never merged, sometimes intersected but more often collided, a figurehead was needed, a personality cult in excelsis.

The remarkable thing about the opening scenes of Colonel Redl is the way they show us how such a cult takes root in a child’s mind. Alfred Redl won’t lay eyes on the emperor until he’s an adult, but as various influences are brought to bear on him, Hausmacht becomes a veritable religion for the boy, in which the “instruments” of God replace God as the object of worship. These childhood scenes are crucial, because the tragic progress of Redl’s adult life is toward the discovery that the god he worships is a neglectful one, and that its high priests (the military and court bureaucracy) are quite willing to sacrifice its devotees to no good purpose.

We begin in Redl’s hometown in Galicia, an Austrian crown land in southeast Poland. At first Alfred isn’t visible, because the camera has taken his point-of-view; we see only what he sees as he walks home from school. The subjective camera work in these early moments is reminiscent of the great childhood scenes in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dr. Zhivago. In these scenes, Mary McCarthy noted, “Sensation and sensibility are at their height in the child; its thin, tender membrane of perception is constantly being stabbed by objects, words, and events that it does not understand. In lieu of understanding, the child ‘notices.’ ” What little Redl “notices” and calmly accepts is the total approval that all adults smile down upon him. He vaguely comprehends that he is the fair-haired boy who must justify the faith everyone has in him. But how that justification is to be achieved he can’t even begin to understand. His stationmaster father greets him with a smile from the train platform. His sturdy peasant mother tucks her daughter into bed but reserves a tender sidelong glance for her favorite. His schoolmaster beams approval when Alfred recites an ode to the emperor. “Our welfare is his sole concern,” we hear the child’s voice pipe. The school board petitions the emperor to transfer the lad to a military academy and subsidize his education there. Franz Joseph complies. You see, Alfred, your poem was correct.

Up to now, the film’s color scheme has had the warmth of early Van Gogh: golds and browns dominated and the atmosphere was one of warmth and love. With the shift to the academy, the cinematography takes on different hues: the blues and greens of military uniforms, lowering skies, rain-soaked forests, bureaucracy’s corridors, the rooms of prostitutes; all will have the look and feel of being underwater, as if the viewer were swimming with Redl slowly under ice as panic sets in.

Only now, when the director drops the subjective-point-of-view camera work, we see Alfred doing a leg-strengthening exercise in the schoolyard. He hops about like a trained monkey. And he has a charmingly intelligent, monkey-puckered face, grave with prematurely assumed responsibility, wonderstruck at the way life has singled him out to be the most devoted of his majesty’s subjects, and — who knows? — perhaps his most useful too.

Alfred receives more cause for wonderment when an aristocratic schoolmate, Christoph Kubinyi, takes him home to the family estate. The family possesses an air of nonexcluding elegance. The boy is taken for horse rides amid snow-covered firs. The sheet music on the drawing room piano looks so eloquently tattered, you’re sure its pages must have been turned once by Haydn. A dowager gently chides the boy, “You must learn French, my dear. There is more to the military life than horses.” When Alfred is defeated by the spigot on a coffee dispenser and gets ankle deep in liquid before he summons the nerve to call for help, the family’s budding beauty daughter Katerin (whose flirtatious ways have already won Alfred’s heart in 10 seconds flat during a family outing), senses the little commoner’s embarrassment and deliberately pours coffee down the frock of her dress. Noblesse oblige. If the emperor is the nation’s father figure, this class of people seems to Alfred to be the tribal elders. He is willing to die for them.

In the final childhood scenes, Alfred chooses not to attend his father’s funeral because it is being held at the same time as his commencement, at which Franz Joseph is to be named godfather to the entire class. With this action, Alfred has willed himself to be the child of the state. The remainder of the movie shows the consequences of this choice.

Little Redl grows up to be the great Colonel Redl, the first modern spymaster, head of all espionage operations for the Hapsburgs. He is both the brilliant pioneer of such techniques as bugging and surreptitious photography, and the double agent whose perfidy has haunted the central European imagination in much the same way as that of Kim Philby haunts the British. Szabo’s imaginative, historically groundless view is that Redl, far from being an inveterate mole, only surrendered secrets once, in a fit of fury, when he at last realized that the state he had served with such diligence was out to use him as a scapegoat. With this one act, this spurned patriot willingly sealed his own fate, then committed suicide at the behest of his superiors.

But why would any government spurn the services of a Redl? Wouldn’t he be more valuable to them as a living agent than as a dead scapegoat? Szabo shows us a monarchy — represented by the Archduke Francis Ferdinand — more fearful of the combustible makeup of the population than solicitous of that population’s welfare. There are so many warring factions within the empire that a scapegoat, an “enemy within,” is needed whose public pillorying will unify the people and prepare them for the war that is sure to come.

After ordering Redl to capture such a scapegoat, the Archduke warns his spymaster about certain groups that must not be offended. So arrogantly possessed by the spirit of Realpolitik that he can whittle down the alternatives as coldly as a computer executes a bookkeeping problem, the Archduke lists the untouchables:

No Austrian must be accused. Remember, the monarchy itself is Austrian.

No Hungarians. We are, after all, a dual monarchy.

No Czechs. Too many pressure groups.

No Serbs. No Croations. They’re ready to riot at the drop of a hat.

No Jews. Remember what a nuisance the Dreyfus affair became to the French. And, anyway, we’re still in hock to the Rothschilds.

But who then can be accused, Redl wonders. Well . . . a Ukranian would be fine. You’re of Ukranian stock, aren’t you, Redl? Yes, fmd us one of your countrymen to accuse. Someone, say, from Galicia. Oh yes, you’re from Galicia, aren’t you, Redl? Find someone, just like yourself. Find your mirror image.

Redl arises from this interview so shaken that he can barely find his hat. From this moment, he is doomed.

But Colonel Redl isn’t a simple case study of victimization. Redl is a complex man, both dynamic and self-thwarting, who ultimately collaborates in his own destruction. The instability of the government he serves and the contradictions within the officer corps are all reflected in Redl’s character. Jews are despised by the military establishment, yet almost all of the young officers seem to be part Jewish. Redl warns his officers about consorting with Jews and then writes an affectionate letter to a Jewish friend — who is an army officer! Homosexuality is despised, yet homosexuality is rife within the ranks. Redl himself has a bisexual nature but sternly reins in his homosexual impulses. But when he learns his sex life is being investigated by his own secret service, Redl deliberately picks up a male prostitute employed by the enemy and blurts out state secrets to him. The emperor is revered as a father figure, yet the young officers deride him as a senile old fool.

Redl himself comes to view the emperor with contempt. Where is the godfather he wrote his childish poem to glorify, whose sole concern is for the people who loyally serve him? But having said as much, he dreams of his father standing on his shoulders. It’s obviously not his natural father he’s dreaming of. Deeply ingrained instincts can’t be stifled just because they no longer accord with reality. Hausmacht has been his religion, and he can’t turn atheist this late in the game. Going into a church, he uses an offertory candle to burn the childhood photos of his two aristocratic loves, Christoph and Katerin. Then he turns to the altar, but he can’t pray. “I should have tried it sooner.”

Klaus Maria Brandauer (who has won acclaim as Meryl Streep’s husband in Out of Africa) plays Redl. The disorder of the spymaster’s soul is perfectly reflected in the actor’s face, which seems to have a geological fault running down its center. His performance is elegant not only in the sense of projecting feline grace and amiability, lightly laced with menace, but also in the mathematician’s sense of reaching conclusions without wasted effort. His suicide scene is a marvel of acting imagination. Redl, given a service revolver to kill himself with, would like to run out of the hotel room in which he has been cloistered by the General Staff and shoot as many of his persecutors as possible. He does run toward the door with the gun raised but is baffled by a force that drives him back into the room and forces the revolver up to his own head. The obstacle is invisible but Brandauer makes us know what it is. With his actor’s imagination, he makes us see the power of Hausmacht.

In its indictment of the state, Colonel Redl succeeds precisely where Plenty failed. In the latter, Meryl Streep’s course of action was so wildly at variance with her aspirations that it became too easy to dismiss her as a neurotic. But Alfred Redl can’t be so easily dismissed. His personal life is a mess, all right, but his overall course of action is in accord with his idealistic aspirations. What he wants, he pursues. So, when the pursuit comes to grief, it isn’t because of whimsical perversity. The disorder of Redl’s mind reflects the disorder of the state he is trying to serve, and the two disorders collaborate to bring a man down. When Redl blurts out those secrets, he is performing his last great service to the state. “Betrayal is a national virtue,” Redl notes with grim satisfaction. The state is a traitor.


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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