Wednesday, September 9, 2020
István Szabó | Oberst Redl (Colonel Redl)
the terrified soul
by Douglas Messerli
István Szabó and Péter Dobai (screenplay, based on the play A Patriot for Me by John Osborne), István Szabó (director) Oberst Redl (Colonel Redl) / 1985
István Szabó’s 1985 film Colonel Redl may be loosely based on British playwright John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me, but in tone and vision it is far closer to Austrian novelist Joseph Roth’s classic fiction, Radetzky March, a musical rendition of that military warhorse beginning and ending Szabó’s work as a tribute to Roth’s novel.
Like the hero of Roth’s work, the central figure of Redl is a product of a provincial territory in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in this case from Galicia of Ruthenian heritage.
As Marjorie Perloff has made apparent in her excellent literary study Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire, Franz Joseph I and his associates had worked to create major cultural and educational centers in all of the vast Empire’s regions under the dual monarchy of Austria and Hungary, including cities in Bohemia, Moravia, Bukovina, Transylvania, Banat, Croatia-Slovenia, Carniola, Bosnia, Dalmatia, Silesia, Galicia, and other territories.
Indeed it was, in part, the very success of the cultural and educational institutions that it established which brought about its eventual downfall, in which, so Szabó’s film posits, Alfred Redl, who ultimately became the head of the Evidenzbureau, the counter-espionage branch of the government, was partially responsible—even though the scandal that his traitorous actions which brought about his death by suicide on May 25, 1913, occurred more than a year before the assassination in June 1914 of the Franz Joseph’s heir, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo.
Yet to do this properly, something I am afraid, that lies outside my knowledge and capabilities, we would have to be able to completely separate the man’s own foibles and the myths created by the Austrian-Hungarian government itself in their attempts to explain and simultaneously mystify Redl’s actions by the scheming Archduke and his supporters.
A bit like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane the director of Oberst Redl seems to suggest that the roots, at least, of Redl’s downfall lay in his childhood upbringing in those excellent schools which focused on the eminence of Franz Joseph and the Empire in general, views strongly reinforced by his poor mother and father, a railroad clerk. The young Alfred (performed here as an adult by Klaus Maria Brandauer) was a talented student, writing his own poetic tribute to the Emperor, for which he was commended, working hard to become one of the best students in his school.
If only, furthermore, the young Alfred were not such a good student that, even without the usually required wealthy connections, he was accepted into a prestigious military academy where he almost immediately became close friends with Kristóf Kubinyi (Jan Niklas), whose aristocratic Hungarian parents invited him for holidays. Luxuriating in the wealth and refinement of their home and in the beauty of Kristof’s sister, Katalin (Gudrun Landgrebe), he was made to feel even more embarrassed for his own upbringing in Galacia, hiding the truth about his humble homelife by pretending to be of born in an Hungarian-born family who had lost its fortune.
If only Kristóf were not such a daredevil, seeking out adventuress excursions with his friend, including, as they grew older, a visit to a brothel in which it became clear that Redl is more interested in watching Kristóf have sex rather than becoming himself involved with a woman.
In the screen version, his budding homosexual relationship goes nowhere, however, as his friend, a confirmed heterosexual also pushes away from Redl through his political values. As the Hungarians increasingly become more nationalistic, Kristóf and his colleagues argue for throwing off the yoke of the Habsburg rule, while Redl, true to his youthful ideals, grows even more patriotic and faithful to the man he sees as his benefactor, Franz Joseph—a viewpoint as mistaken, in some senses, as Charles Dicken’s Pip’s belief that Miss Haversham is behind his educational successes.
Frustrated in his would-be love of Kristóf, Redl attempts to attend to the attractions to Katalin—a predictable way to remain within his would-be lover’s family orbit while tempering his obvious attraction to her brother.
Katalin accepts his modest attempts to woo her, but also has no illusions about her role in their relationship. Indeed, she is even more sexually open-minded than her brother, admitting to having seduced stable-boys even as a young girl, and making it clear to Redl that she knows that it is her brother with whom Alfred would rather be sharing his bed.
Kristóf, meanwhile, involves Alfred as his second in a meaningless duel between him and another military student, which ends in that man’s death, jeopardizing both Kubinyi’s and Redl’s career.
Partially as punishment for their actions, the two are assigned to serve in a garrison on border of Russia, where, because of its unimportance to the Empire, discipline has nearly been eradicated. Obviously, the serious-minded Redl stands out in this backwater location, raising eyebrows only when he frequents a bar run by a local Rabbi. To me, Redl’s act is a quiet means of expressing his sense of being an outside of the normative values of a society in which he so desperately desires to be part.
When the garrison’s commanding officer readies to retire, he recommends Redl for his position, in which the younger is quite apt, while nonetheless antagonizing the other officers, including Kristóf who feels superior simply by his birth. Redl’s criticism for his friend’s behavior leads to Kubinyi mocking Redl’s lowly origins, which in Szabó’s vision, as I have suggested, is more at the heart of the Colonel’s later treason than his homosexuality.
It may be of some interest here to express how the cultured centers of the Empire perceived the Ruthenians, also designated as Rusyns or the people of Rus, suggesting their linkage to Russia and the Ukraine, particularly since their language was a variation of Ukrainian generally referred as East Ukrainian. As scholar Martin Mutschlechner reminds us:
Depending on the observer’s point of view, these mountain country folk and farmers of the Carpathian region were subsumed by Poles, Slovaks or Ukrainians. They were regarded as “exotic” among the peoples of the Habsburg Monarchy; on account of their archaic way of life ethnographers tended to view them from a perspective of presumed, quasi-colonialist superiority and described them as if they were non-European “aboriginal tribes.”
Is it any wonder that Redl, the supreme patriot, is embarrassed by his heritage?
Indeed, it is somewhat puzzling why von Roden continued to support Redl’s career for many years, particularly since his protégé’s homosexual inclinations had long been observed by military leaders and come to the attention of the Ukrainians and Russians.
As Alfred and Katalin ride through the park in celebration of his new position, she points out the figure of Franz Joseph walking nearby in the mist. One of the most touching moments of this film occurs when Alfred asks for the horsecart to be turned back, but realizes that he might have nothing of importance to say to his paternal hero.
Since Alfred’s sexuality is now discussed openly, Katalin suggests that Redl marry her friend, Clarissa, who suffering from poor health is quite happy to remain in a basically non-sexual relationship with him.
Despite the rumors, however, and the increased grumbling of his associates for his harsh implementation of military rules, Redl’s endless devotion to the Empire results in more awards and decorations, drawing the attention of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who, scheming for a way that will awaken the government to the increasing speculations about overthrowing the Emperor, sets up an aging Ukrainian officer to be arrested by Redl, now Intelligence Director, in order to agitate the army to throw off their complacency. The plot fails, however, when the man is accidently shot to death by one of Redl’s own men.
Later readdressing the urgency of the matter, the Archduke explains why whoever Redl might pick as the fall guy cannot be a Hungarian, given that the Empire is a dual-monarchy, that it cannot a Croat for fear of startling a revolution in that part of the Empire, etc. No, he argues, it must be someone from one of the most distant parts of the Habsburg community, Galacia, perhaps a Ruthenian, he concludes, sending Redl back into his homeland to discover such a person.
Obviously, the fall guy, Redl soon perceives, is to be himself.
At a grand ball—at which nearly everyone present is openly discussing the end of the Empire—Alfred is discretely introduced by a friend to a handsome Italian, who waits for him as he leaves. The two obviously enjoy a lovely night of sex before they take a walk in the snowy forest nearby, with the Intelligence Office confronting the Italian about his intentions and the woman who had introduced them. In short, he has seen through the man’s ruse, and in rapid-fire outrage names all the Austria garrisons and the numbers of those who man them and the quantity of weapons they contain.
To have assimilated this information the Italian would have to be as capably orally as someone with a photographic memory. But for the director’s purposes it is all evidence that Redl long ago recognized that he must give up his life in order to permit the Empire’s survival.
On the morning of May 1913, he was presented with a gun by his beloved friend Kubinyi, who waited outside until Redl gained the courage to shoot himself to death.
Unfortunately, in his attempt to implicate Ruthenia as Redl’s version of Kane’s “Rosebud,” Szabó has played with a slightly stacked deck of cards. In truth, Alfred Redl was not at all Ruthenian, but of German-Czech stock, and, as the son of a senior employee of the railroads, grew up in family of the middle class. His sister, far from being a poor peasant woman as portrayed in the film, was a schoolteacher.
Rather than being exposed by an Italian seducer, Redl had for years been a paid spy of the Imperial Russian government who themselves had blackmailed him for his homosexuality.
As Richard Grenier, exploring the facts and fiction of the real Redl’s life in The New York Times observes:
“Redl was nothing if not audacious. Letters indicate that he was deeply in love with a young cavalry officer in Austria's 7th Uhlans, the Empire's most fashionable cavalry unit, and that he kept this officer in the highest style: horses, custom-made Daimlers (at three times a colonel's yearly pay), a sumptuous apartment—all paid for with Russian money. He took the young officer with him even on some official occasions, introducing him as his nephew.
“Redl's passion for the cavalry officer did not, however, prevent dalliance with other partners. After his suicide, members of the General Staff who broke into his residence, which reeked of women's perfume, found not only photocopies of top-secret Austrian battle plans but also cosmetics, pomades, dyes, a curling iron, women's silk stockings and photographs of Redl and other male Austrian officers, nude or in women's clothing, engaging in a variety of sexual practices.”
Of course, these last reports may simply have been part of the Archduke’s attempts to stir up yet more outrage from the Empire’s populace. Yet some historians also argue that Franz Ferdinand was not at all involved in a plot against Redl.
And, of course, the US itself has had a head of Intelligence who was not only involved in a homosexual relationship but enjoyed, in private company, dressing up in drag.
Certainly, the general public and the intelligentsia of Redl’s time were shocked by the revelations. The young author Stefan Zweig is said to have “started up with terrified soul,” he later proclaimed, knowing that war was now certain.
Los Angeles, September 9, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2020)
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema (September 2020).