BarbaraBarbaraa German language film, subtitled in English, is a fascinating glimpse into the Cold War. Nina Hoss plays Barbara, a doctor who has been exiled to rural East Germany from Berlin for reasons that are not clear. That is a theme of the film – the viewer is not sure what Barbara did or is doing now that is subversive, but we know that she is now secretly working against the government. She is suddenly, and seemingly randomly harassed. She suffers these indignities with a stoicism that is, ironically, nakedly apparent on her expressive face.

Unsurprisingly, she holds herself aloof and apart from the other staff – in particular, Andre, another doctor. The dialogue between these two, and others, is minimal and subdued – much of the power of the film lies in the close-ups of these two characters faces.  Even though it is suffused with paranoia, the film is beautiful and evocative of a simpler and less-technological time.

A mixture of the political and the romantic, this is primarily the portrait of a particular woman who maintains her dignity and integrity during a time when trust was not given easily or thoughtlessly. And when real emotion breaks out, it is all the more powerful for having been restrained.

If you cared to, you could do a total immersion TTSS  (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) experience using library materials.

Prompted by the recent movie starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, I went back to the BBC version on DVD, in which Alec Guinness plays the recently retired spy. At the same time, I listened to the BBC radio play as an audiobook. Like the funhouse mirror world of espionage, each iteration was faithful to the original source material of the book in some aspects, and each one  edited parts of the narrative, as well as completely changing essential  plot points.

For example, the catalyst for the investigation of a mole in the 1980 miniseries is a night time chase in the dark woods, while the 2011 movie accomplishes the same end with a shootout in an outdoor cafe.

The TV  version is more thorough and straightforward in its storytelling, while the movie, is, of course, abridged and cinematic. Because it is more elliptical, it is helpful to have read or listened to a more unedited version.

I won’t spoil the ending; suffice it to say, the recent movie rivals The Godfather in it’s elegiac yet violent ending.

March 6

Footloose – Julianne Hough, Dennis Quaid

Ren MacCormack moves from Boston to the small town of Bomont, where loud music and dancing are prohibited. Not one to bow to the status quo, Ren challenges the ban, revitalizes the town, and falls in love with the minister’s troubled daughter, Ariel. Rated PG-13

March 13

Melancholia – Kirsten Dunst, Alexander Skarsgard

In this beautifully filmed movie about the end of the world, Justine and Michael are celebrating their marriage. A planet called Melancholia is heading directly toward Earth and threatening to collide. Meanwhile, tensions are mounting and relationships are fraying as the family deals with their fears. Rated R

My Week with Marilyn – Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne

In the summer of 1956, Colin Clark worked as a lowly assistant on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, the film that famously united Sir Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. When his diary account was published, one week was missing. This is the story of that week: an idyll in which he escorted a Monroe desperate to get away from Hollywood hangers-on and the pressures of work. Rated R

March 20

The Muppets – Jason Siegel, Kermit-the-Frog, Miss Piggy, Amy Adams

On vacation in Los Angeles, Walter, the world’s biggest Muppet fan, and his friends Gary and Mary, discover the nefarious plan of oilman Tex Richman to raze the Muppet Theater and drill for the oil recently discovered beneath the Muppets’ former stomping grounds. To stage the Greatest Muppet Telethon Ever and raise the $10 million needed to save the theater, Walter, Mary, and Gary help Kermit reunite the Muppets. Rated PG

J Edgar – Leonardo DiCaprio

J. Edgar Hoover was head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly 50 years. Hoover was feared, admired, reviled, and revered, a man who could distort the truth as easily as he upheld it. His methods were at once ruthless and heroic, with the admiration of the world his most coveted prize. But behind closed doors, he held secrets that would have destroyed his image, his career, and his life. Rated R

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo– Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig

Hoping to distance himself from the fallout of a libel conviction, journalist Mikael Blomkvist retreats to a remote island where the unsolved murder of a young girl still haunts her industrialist uncle forty years later.  Blomkvist’s investigation draws him into the secrets and lies of the rich and powerful, and throws him together with one unlikely ally: tattooed, punk hacker, Lisbeth Salander. Rated R.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Gary Oldman, Colin Firth

At the height of the Cold War, a precarious operation goes deadly wrong, and the head of British Intelligence wonders if a double agent is leaking vital secrets. Brought out of retirement to expose the potential mole, master spy George Smiley is the only one who can be trusted to expose one of their own. Or can he? Rated R

 

 

Dorothy Gilman’s series about a senior  spy begins with The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. The 60-something Emily Pollifax decides that she needs to do something more meaningful with her life, and begins by walking into the CIA to volunteer her services.

Published in 1966, some of the sentiments seem dated; women in their sixties today would be less likely to be have as their primary identity being a frail-looking grandmother who has never been part of the workforce. What is interesting is the Cold War attitudes and alliances. It’s one thing to set a book in the sixties, it’s another to read one written with those assumptions.

I decided to read this one after hearing Nancy Pearl’s recommendations on NPR; they were part of a list of books that featured travel. Mrs. Pollifax does get around; in this book she starts out in Mexico (acting as a courier), and ends up in Albania.  Along the way, she proves herself resourceful, tenacious and very, very tough – even by current standards. Her innocence leads her to trust others more easily than a professional spy would, but it allows her to develop relationships that will come in handy later. If you want to make a quick visit to a world gone by, and to meet a slightly eccentric but very successful spy, give these a try.

AT has visited the former Soviet Union before but feels it deserves another look – the hidden nature of it’s government and society makes it the  perfect  setting for countless spy novels.  John Le Carre, the master of the Cold War suspense novel, has  real-life experience in espionage. He was an officer in both MI5 and MI6 in the 50’s and ’60’s, when he began writing fiction.

One of my favorite le Carre novels  is Our Game, largely due to the friendship of the main chararcters and the English and Russian setting. The finale takes place in Ingushetia,  an unstable Russian subject next to Chechnya. The book starts out with a mystery; the Bath (England) Police are looking for Larry Pettifer and come to the door of his friend , and former handler, Tim Cranmer.  Tim is forced to re-enter the spy world to protect himself and to help his friend – if he can. It turns out that Larry is not just a brilliant University lecturer, but also involved in a quixotic attempt to aid the Ingush rebels.

There is no one better than le Carre in depicting the moral complexity of this murky world, in which the name of the game is deceit and deception, and he  shows how such a career is inseparable with your private life, even in retirement.


In June, when the FBI arrested 10 Russian spies who had been living and working in the U.S.  , it brought to mind books and movies that were based on this very plot. These two films were filmed near the end of the Cold War – an era that seems very distant now.

No Way Out (based on the book, The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing) starred Kevin Costner as a heroic  Navy commander. In a labyrinthine plot of deceit and betrayal, Tom Farrell, as played by Costner, is forced by the Secretary of Defense (Gene Hackman) to search for a KGB mole. The Secretary begins the investigation to distract everyone from an affair and accidental murder, but, it turns out, there is a surprising twist in this  extremely complicated plot.

Sleepers was a 4-part TV series in 1991 about two KGB agents who had been in England for 25 years. They were to establish themselves as native British citizens who would,  theoretically, be called to action someday.  However, as the Soviet Union collapsed, they were forgotten. The two men, by this time, are well established and are not anxious to disrupt their English jobs and lifestyle.  One is a factory worker with a wife and young children, the other is a playboy and  investment banker. Their accidental discovery is played out as a comedy, but there is real emotion in their dilemma.

 What is truly fascinating is the long-forgotten replica of  English kitchen, living room, etc. where the spies had learned to be British. This gives insight into what it means to be British and Russian (in the ’60’s and the ’90’s).