“Christ, I miss the Cold War”: This memorable exclamation from M in the 2006 James Bond film “Casino Royale” seems to have infected the brains of scriptwriters from Los Angeles to Berlin like a virus, with lasting and consequential reverberations. Perhaps not least because Judi Dench’s M, even in a power suit and pearls, managed to exude infinitely more erotic energy with one contemptuous snort than Daniel Craig’s 007 in tiny swimming trunks.
In any case, there has recently been a notable increase in films and television series about the era between the end of World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall: from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (2011) to “The Americans” and (just last year) “Bridge of Spies,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” and finally “Deutschland 83,” a US production filmed entirely in German. Not to mention the extraordinary German series “Weissensee” (three seasons between 2010 and 2015). Coincidence? There is of course only one correct answer to this question: I think not!
But whether this is in fact a conspiracy or merely a suspicious synchronicity of events, the question remains … why? Acid rain, nuclear Armageddon, missiles, proxy wars, the Berlin Wall, Margaret Thatcher, Franz-Josef Strauß, AIDS, stone-washed jeans, Duran Duran, Nena, and “No Future” – anyone who lived through the Cold War and wasn‘t high knows: It wasn’t that much fun. What is behind this wave of nostalgia?
It was, mind you, forecast by none other than John Mearsheimer – a political scientist from the University of Chicago and godfather of the so-called Realist School, according to which the lodestar of all foreign policy is the national interest. Back in 1990 he began a now famous essay with these words: “Peace: it’s wonderful. I like it as much as the next man, and have no wish to be willfully gloomy at a moment when optimism about the future shape of the world abounds. Nevertheless, my thesis in this essay is that we are likely soon to regret the passing of the Cold War.”
As the academic profession is notoriously excitable on matters of textual exegesis, it should be noted immediately that Mearsheimer was not talking about such ephemeral cultural effluvia as film and television. His concern was that pinnacle of all human enterprise, international relations, whose priesthood, at least then, was recruited from the most elite male order of all, the nuclear theologians.
Mearsheimer did own that he was not going to miss the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Wall, or the Sputnik-and-spies paranoia of the McCarthy era. But now, he wrote, with the end of the East-West conflict, the European continent would face a resurgence of nationalism, mistrust, violence, and anarchy. Until the end of the Cold War, all this had been kept at bay by the bipolar world order, the military balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the fact that both sides possessed huge arsenals of nuclear weapons. It was this triad that the academic saw as the anchor of the “long peace” (a term borrowed from historian John Lewis Gaddis) between 1945 and 1989 – and with it of all stability on Earth. In short: power belonged to men, missiles stayed in their silos, nations stayed behind walls, and women stayed in the kitchen.
Today, in contrast, disorder rules. The enemies of our open society live in our midst, in America a woman is running for president, and Germany has been ruled by an East German female for over a decade. The situation is not made any less confusing by the fact that at the same time there is a ruler in Moscow, Vladimir Putin, who has no compunctions about rooting around in the rusty toolbox of the Cold War and ostentatiously toying with its contents. These tools include propaganda, subversion, and little green men, as well as loud musings about the reach of Russian nuclear missiles. It’s all bewildering and scary. No wonder people hark back longingly to the past.
On a practical level the balance of powers depended on the ability of each side to figure out what “capabilities” (troops, tanks, warheads, missiles) the other could bring to bear in order to counter or, better still, out-do it (the latter was termed by the nuclear experts, with exquisite precision, as “overkill”).There were, and remain, two means of gaining this kind of information: technical and human. In other words: satellites and spies.
Silent sensors orbiting among the stars aren’t particularly suitable for the pop-cultural processing of public anxieties. Espionage, on the other hand – the obsessive scrutiny of humans by humans – has become the most fruitful symbol, even the central metaphor, of the Cold War. It makes the superpower standoff tangible on a human level, distilling it to the level of the struggle of man against man. The great thing about spying as a narrative vehicle is its essential ambiguity: from knowledge comes intimacy and trust – but also fear of what remains unknown (former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld‘s “unknown unknowns”), and the possibility of mutual destruction.
Desire, Deception, Death
So it is all about attraction and repulsion, desire and suspicion, seduction and deception, love and hate, sex and death – the whole gamut of international relations. The fact that the movers and shakers of this pre-1989 world were nearly all men added the subversive element of forbidden attraction, which in turn expanded the available means of leverage to blackmail.
And what is love, if not a bipolar order? Is it not a stable relationship based on a balance of powers – with the consequence of mutually assured destruction if things go wrong? Apologies to Professor Mearsheimer, but strong paradigms have a way of developing a life of their own and infecting other cultural regions such as film and television.
On to the new films. They are, it must be said, a lot less interesting than the series, despite an impressive line-up of top directors, star actors, dramatic settings, and kinetic events (the military term of art for when things go boom).
“Bridge of Spies,” directed by Steven Spielberg, retells a sensational historical event – the story of the swap of Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy arrested in the US, for the American pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. Both possessed highly sensitive secret information which could have caused catastrophe had it been obtained by the other side. They perfectly embodied the balance of terror.
Yet the US and USSR were frozen in enmity like two bulls eying each other on an ice-covered lake. Neither side could move for fear that everything could collapse under their feet. Enter James Donovan (Tom Hanks), public defender for the spy, who insists on Western values and due process, even for the enemy. This wins him respect from the US authorities as well as the trust of the spy and the Soviets – and he soon finds himself playing the role of negotiator for the super powers.
Donovan flies to East Berlin, to subzero temperatures (weather metaphor!), catching a terrible cold after some depraved young East Germans, attracted by Western consumer goods, rob him of his winter coat. But Hanks is not to be deterred, and negotiates the prisoner swap with the KGB and Stasi. It finally takes place in 1962, in a deep frost (!) on the Glienicker Bridge.
“Bridge of Spies” was nominated for six Oscars and won one – for Mark Rylance‘s acting as the spy Abel. Hanks is, as ever, the very essence of the noble American, while Burghart Klaussner as East Germany’s public prosecutor Harald Ott and Sebastian Koch as lawyer Wolfgang Vogel deliver solid German craftsmanship.
Spielberg may in fact have made the only modern spy film in which the protagonists are fundamentally decent people who are only doing their jobs and where a male friendship is really just that. Yet so much wooden seriousness on all sides is lethal for the narrative. All the more because it has been so thoroughly purged of anything remotely libidinous that the briefest of sideways camera glances at Donovan’s pouting teenage daughter (Eve Hewson) has the effect of a bolt of lightning.
In Guy Ritchie‘s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” the superpowers reluctantly cooperate yet again to neutralize a source of danger which in the wrong hands could upend the balance of terror. This is none other than “Hitler‘s favorite rocket scientist,” kidnapped by a megalomaniac couple who feels he might be of use in their quest for world domination. At this point the reader will have guessed that where Spielberg and Hanks were crafting solid oak, Ritchie’s specialty is the thinnest of high- gloss veneers. It starts with the protagonists: both sides deploy their most glamorous spies, with the American Napoleon Solo (played by British actor Henry Cavill) and the Russian Ilya Kuryakin (played by American Armie Hammer) joined by the no less alluring East Berlin car mechanic Gabi (Alicia Vikander, Sweden), the rocket scientistʼs daughter. German actors are to be found in supporting roles here too: Sylvester Groth plays Gabi‘s uncle, a Nazi doctor, while Christian Berkel, who since “Downfall” seems to be firmly typecast in “decent Nazi” roles, dutifully executes the role of the rocket expert.
For some, the film’s name will ring distant bells. Indeed, this is yet another attempt (think “Mission Impossible”) to resuscitate a hit television series from the 1960s. But under Guy Ritchie’s direction, the whole affair predictably turns into a manically hip battle of sets and props, which – as a New Yorker reviewer noted – only once flickers into something approaching genuine emotion: in a Roman boutique, where the two agents argue passionately about whether Gabi (who takes the party line that Western consumerism is decadent) should wear a Paco Rabanne belt with a Patou dress.
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” performs the remarkable achievement of packing the titular John le Carré novel into a two- hour film. It even stands up creditably to the mythical 1979 BBC television series, due as much to the laconic direction of Swedish director Tomas Alfredsson as to an impressive row of stars who deliver a dense ensemble performance: Gary Oldman as the antihero George Smiley from British counterintelligence, joined by Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds, and John Hurt, to cite only the best-known names. The supporting roles – elsewhere reserved for Germans – are here left to women. With le Carré, all important things happen among men – especially anything to do with national security or feelings.
In what is mostly a very respectful adaptation, the director dares make one key update, lifting a submerged motif running through all of le Carré’s work into the light: Smiley’s sidekick Peter Guillam, an accomplished Casanova in the book, as played by Cumberbatch is a man who brusquely ends a relationship with another man in order to avoid becoming vulnerable to blackmail. Finally alone, he breaks down, weeping. In contrast to Spielberg’s and Ritchie’s films, this is genuine emotion, and like all real love, it is tragic.
Le Carré unfolds his narrative within the established conventions of the East-West conflict. Smiley’s opposite number in the Great Game of the Cold War is Karla – the cover name of the legendary head of Soviet counterintelligence who manages to plant a mole at the highest level of MI6. But the real enemy in the books is a different one – neither the Nazis, nor the post-war Germans, who interest him only in passing. Le Carré reserves hisdeepest, most passionate hatred for the overbearing allies who have robbed the once-proud Empire of its manhood. It is not for nothing that the alliance with the “cousins” (as the US services are called in Britain) is a “special relationship.” Russia may be the external adversary, but the true enemy is the best friend.
All that said, not one of these three films comes anywhere close to the best motion pictures produced by the Cold War itself. And certainly not to masterpieces like “Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (Stanley Kubrick, 1964, with Peter Sellers) or “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (Martin Ritt, 1965, with Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner).
The Enemy Sitting on Your Sofa
Series are perhaps a more effective vehicle for conveying the era of the Cold War to a younger generation, for the simple reason that they can take more time to develop characters, plots, landscapes, and moods. In the much-praised “Deutschland 83,” the 24-year-old East German army border guard Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is inserted by the Stasi into the depths of the Eifel region of West Germany as aide-de-camp to a NATO general. His mission: to find out whether the Pershing II missiles recently stationed by the Americans in the Federal Republic are really just there for deterrence (as the class enemy claims) or (as the Stasi suspects) to prepare the ground for World War III.
“Deutschland 83” was filmed in German with English subtitles, produced by the US firm Sundance TV and written by the German-American couple Anna and Jörg Winger. Grumpy critics have decried its plot as overly construed. Indeed, Rauchʼs desperate efforts to prevent his East German masters from a catastrophic overreaction culminates in his successfully crossing the Berlin Wall back to East Germany; and there are numerous other little irritants.
But the series is excellently cast, with a young star whose facial expressions can shift from vulnerability to hatred and back, all in a fraction of a second. The locations will seem convincing to anyone who knew Bonn in the 1980s, with its armored personnel carriers on patrol, NATO barbed wire on ministry fences, and huge demonstrations on the university green in the center of town. Startlingly familiar, too, is the pervasive feeling that the adults are emotional sleepwalkers, messing around with equipment that could blow up the world at any moment. The enemy here is not just the one lurking on the other side of the Wall, he’s also sitting on the sofa back home.
Where “Deutschland 83” cuts back and forth between West and East, “Weissensee” sets the conflict firmly in the East German capital, at the end of the 1980s, in the bosom of family. Not just any family: the Kupfers are highly decorated pillars of socialism. The head of the family (Uwe Kockisch) is a senior Stasi official, which his eldest son Falk (Jörg Hartmann) also serves. Martin, the youngest (Florian Lukas) has only made it into the Volkspolizei, because he’s ideologically unreliable. The father is a loyal servant of the state who nonetheless understands that the system is doomed. His eldest is a loving father – but above all, an ice-cold true believer. To him, criticism is treachery and every traitor must be rooted out. Even if he is his brother.
“Weissensee” is perfectly cast and narrated, down to the smallest role and detail. Hartmann and Kockisch are fabulous, as is Katrin Sass as the latter’s old flame, a dissident singer. And so East Germany’s self-inflicted demise is told through the unhappy story of the Kupfer family. Yet the fall of the Berlin Wall does not provide a happy ending; 1989 brings liberation without redemption.
“The Americans” is right up there with the best of what US television has to offer. With intelligence and empathy, it tells the story of two Russian spies in Washington during the 1980s. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) were sent to the US as KGB sleeper agents, with orders to marry, start a family, set up a business – and wait for activation. The first season opens with this moment, in 1981.
Since then, the two have stopped at nothing to carry out their missions (unknown even to the local KGB rezidentura): blackmail, sexual entrapment, cold-blooded murder, even an appalling ensemble of 1980s wigs. By the fourth season, additional complications include a fake marriage, an FBI agent living on the other side of the road, and the Jennings’ daughter, who discovers the truth about her parents.
This series, too, lovingly recreates the scenery and atmosphere of the 1980s. Yet its greatest achievement is not only to give the couple and their increasingly complicated relationship plausibility and depth, but also to let them develop a tender and mature love story. How this is achieved from one episode to the next, and how it manages to wring empathy and even affection from viewers is breathtaking. The marriage of the two spies derives its strength from the fact that they are entirely at each other’s mercy. Yet there is an ominous sense that this particular bipolar order is headed for disaster.
So what is it that fascinates us – we who live in a time of transition and growing uncertainty – so much about the Cold War? What do we recognize in these stories that we are missing in our own lives? For one, we are no doubt attracted by the fact that the Other, the enemy, used to have a face and an official government address – and behaved in ways which the West thought it could read, and perhaps even anticipate. Possibly we harbor the hope that where there are secrets, there must also be truths. Finally, we hanker for the era before 1989 because it provided a clear, linear narrative of confrontation between good and evil. The Cold War came after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. And it was followed by a happy ending – the end of history, the unipolar moment, the peace dividend. At least, that was what we told ourselves at the time.
Today, in contrast, we have to ask ourselves: Was the time between 1990 and the present a second “long peace”? And will everything that comes after it be worse?
This piece was originally published in the Berlin Policy Journal.