Colonel Redl is an adaptation of John Osborne’s play A Patriot for Me and charts the rise and fall of a soldier with opportunism where principles should be. It’s a sumptuous affair set in the dog days of the Austro-Hungarian empire and builds slowly towards a painfully frenzied climax, as did the previous collaboration between director István Szabó and actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. And as in Mephisto we’re following a man of few scruples making his way from relative obscurity to the top of his tree – the secret service in this case. Redl was a real man, an officer in the espionage wing of the Austro-Hungarian army who sold his country’s war plans to Russia on the eve of the First World War, thereby condemning thousands of countrymen to their deaths. The Hungarian Szabó doesn’t set out to condemn a traitor. Instead he’s delineating the mindset of someone who doesn’t know who he is. Szabó claimed in interviews when the film first debuted that his reason for making the film was that identity was one of the key drivers of the modern psyche – Redl is ashamed of his homosexuality, his poor background, his ethnic outsiderdom. But Szabó must also have been thinking about identity closer to home – the ethnic fallout from the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire was yet to produce the war in former Yugoslavia but the tensions were already there (and still are, all over the former empire).
After Mephisto, made four years earlier, Brandauer had seemed set for international superstardom. He’d turned up as the stooge husband to Meryl Streep and Robert Redford’s lovers in Out of Africa. And he was a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again. Between then and now he has regularly popped up in English language films, often playing the villain, but has seemed happier to work on a broader canvas in German-speaking countries. It’s our loss. Here, as in Mephisto, his performance is a thing of wonder. He conveys every turn of the coat by Redl with a subtle shift of demeanour. If Szabó has given Brandauer all the canvas an actor could want, Brandauer has responded by delivering a beautiful performance of sympathetic villainy – not a white cat in sight. Szabó’s film is undoubtedly a masterpiece and Brandauer is one of the key reasons why.
© Steve Morrissey 2006