azdak (azdak) wrote,

What-are-you-reading Wednesday

Well, I’m not. Reading, I mean. Not this week, because thanks to avrelia, all my spare time is being taken up by a black-and-white Russian children’s TV series from 1973 called 17 Moments of Spring (handily available on youtube in 10 minute chunks). It’s about a Russian spy who has infiltrated the ranks of the Nazi secret service and in the spring of 1945 is charged with finding out which of Hitler’s high command is attempting to negotiate a secret peace with the Western Allies so that the Nazis can focus all their efforts on wiping out the Soviet Union. Having read Schellenberg’s memoirs last week, I am one step ahead of Standartenführer Stirlitz on this, but the lack of tension in the Who is more than compensated for by the thrill of knowing that this isn’t just a made-up Evil Nazi Threat but a genuine espionage issue.

I am a sucker for spy stories. I think it has to do with the outsider-ness of them, people whose real lives and loves and loyalties are hidden away from the milieu they’re obliged to work in. Even when they form relationships with the people around them, their true self is always hidden. There’s a marvellous scene where Stirlitz celebrates Red Army Day by getting slightly squiffy all by himself at home and humming a Russian song inside his head, half allowing his body to move in time to the treacherous rhythm, half holding it back. He’s been working among the Germans for so long that he’s started to think of Germany as “his” country and the Germans as “his” people, but underneath it all, he's Russian and he can't show any of that to anyone.

Perhaps it's because he's so integrated into German society that the portrayal of the Germans is so astonishingly sympathetic. Not just the ordinary people, but the men in power. It's a remarkably nuanced and balanced portrayal of the upper echelons of the Reich Main Security Office. These aren’t the cliched monsters of a million Hollywood movies but exhausted men, red-eyed from lack of sleep, clinging onto power by their fingertips as their country crumbles around them. Müller, the head of the Gestapo - whom the otherwise excellent Conspiracy portrayed as a bloated, sex-obsessed grotesque, because what else could the head of the Gestapo be?* - is positively sympathetic here, intelligent and thoughtful, with a sly sense of humour and an bottomless capacity for intrigue. The series effortlessly handles the paradox embodied in Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods by the torturer with the World’s Greatest Dad mug - the horrible things aren’t being done by cartoon villains, but by real people. When Kaltenbrunner, who is fanatically loyal to Hitler, first starts to suspect Stirlitz, one of his reasons is Stirlitz’s steadfast refusal to criticise the Party leadership. “Is he an idiot?” says Kaltenbrunner to Müller. Because only an idiot would remain uncritical in the current “tragic situation”.

Even if it wasn’t about spies in World War II - and therefore by definition something I was going to gobble up with a spoon - it would be worth watching just for the amazing (and brilliantly integrated) real-life footage. Ever wondered what a deer hunt at Göring’s country estate looked like? Ever wanted a peep at the esoteric splendour of Heydrich’s funeral? There are astonishing shots of life in Leningrad during the siege, of Stalingrad after the liberation - the series does a great job of portraying Berlin under the pounding of the Allied bombs, but nothing prepares you for the ghostly ruins of Stalingrad - and of German POWs being marched through the streets of Moscow, watched by throngs of silent Muscovites.

I know that in 1973 nobody had the distraction of smartphones and laptops, but Russian children must have had extraordinarily long attention spans, because the pace is positively Haneke-esque. They were also expected to pay close enough attention to follow a series of intrigues and counter-intrigues that I don’t always grasp myself (the translation doesn’t help here - there are quite a lot of lines where it’s blindingly obvious that some nuance is being lost, but you can’t tell what), and they must have had nerves of steel because there are a number of “adult situations” of the non-porny kind, including some stomach-churning footage from concentration camps.

The footage of Heydrich’s funeral starts at 3.28 (the English subtitles are of variable quality, but I’m pretty sure “Gedrich” is actually Heydrich). If you want to see a bit of fictional!Kaltenbrunner start at 1.58. The handsome dark-haired chap brooding in the background is, of course, Stirlitz.

*ETA rachelindeed has pointed out that this character was not, in fact, Müller. Müller is played by Bates from Dowton Abbey. I shall refrain from pointing out the crossover potential inherent in this observation.
Tags: 17 moments of spring

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