Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies


Howard Adelman

I spoke to my eldest son on Sunday morning – he was born exactly half-way between the period when the film takes place – to check whether he had returned safely from Paris, where he had been for a few weeks. As it turned out, he had left Paris just before the IS terrorist attacks and knew nothing of them until he arrived back at Newark Airport. Obviously we discussed Paris and its significance, but he also urged me to see this film. I saw it Sunday evening.

Bridge of Spies is touted as part courtroom drama and part spy movie. It is neither. There is no drama in the court case when Rudolf Abel (played absolutely brilliantly by Mark Rylance) is tried in 1957, though there is some interesting negotiations between James Donavan (Tom Hanks), Abel’s defence attorney, and the presiding judge in his chambers and home. This is also no spy movie, though the movie is about the events leading to the exchange of two spies, Rudolf Abel, a KGB spy for the Soviet Union, and Francis Gary Powers, who flew the U-2 spy plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union when it was flying at 70,000 feet in the air in 1960.

That was the most exciting action scene in the whole film, a scene that is used to suggest why Powers has no time to take the poison that the CIA gave him. However, the movie is overwhelmingly about James Donavan who first defended Abel in his trial and then negotiated the exchange with the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1962. The movie is a negotiation film; that is what the film is about and where the real drama takes place.

The movie opens in the spring of 1957. Dwight Eisenhower, who would denounce the military-industrial complex, had just begun his second term as President of the United States with the Eisenhower Doctrine promising aid to countries that resisted the entreaties of the Communist Bloc. Mike Pearson’s innovation in creating peacekeepers to help end the Suez crisis was an integral part of that history and time. Pearson would become Prime Minister after the Diefenbaker government imploded when it cancelled the Avro Arrow and disintegrated in internal wrangling.

After completing my second pre-meds year and waiting to enter my first year of medical school, I had just been hired by the Campus Cooperative Residences, a student-owned and run low-cost residence at the University of Toronto. I was its first outside general manager. I was nineteen and I was reading Alan Ginsberg’s poem Howl that had been suppressed in the U.S. It was also the year I began to read Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and discovered how even more extensive my ignorance was than I thought it had been.

It was also a year when I had begun to feel some real traction as I exercised my political walking legs. On 23 October 1956, when I was still eighteen, student demonstrations in Budapest in Hungary escalated to a demand for the communist government to ease up on its repressive policies. Though Prime Minister Imre Nagy conceded to the student demands under the slogan “a new course for socialism,” precisely because of that, on 4 November, Soviet Union tanks and 150,000 soldiers rolled into Budapest and crushed the rebellion even before we could prove our worth as volunteers to fight the repressive order in Hungary in imitation of the students who had volunteered to fight in Spain in the thirties.

My first job as General Manager was to house about 30 of the 37,000 Hungarian refugees who had fled the re-imposition of repression and had been taken in by Canada. Had I heard of Rudolf Abel at the time? Yes. He had been linked to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, whom the United States had executed in 1953 and 1955 respectively for transferring atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. In that year, I was still under the illusion that the Rosenbergs had been railroaded and found guilty in an American kangaroo court and, although I was neither a communist supporter or even sympathizer, in high school I had joined the marches protesting against the scheduled executions.

The film opens with Rudolf Abel painting a self-portrait. We see him in the mirror then the painting itself and finally his face. It is an example of realist art – the representation looks just as much like the original as the mirror image. Yes, this is a man of many aliases. But he was never disguised. He always looked the same. I knew or, at least believed, at the time that Rudolf Abel was Jewish, as the Rosenbergs had been, but I knew little else beside that. And perhaps even that was a construction of my imagination. Abel in the film looks nondescript. He does not look Jewish. Nor are we ever told that he was. Then I thought that Abel had been caught because he was alleged to belong to the same nest of spies and that he was possibly persecuted and prosecuted because he was Jewish.

At that time as well, when I finished my exams, I began my twice-yearly ritual of hitchhiking down to New York City, leaving in the evening and getting to New York sometime the next morning, in time to buy a snack and wait outside one of the theatres to sneak in at the first intermission. When someone three years later asked why I had written a two-act rather than a three-act play, the norm at the time, I explained that I had never seen a first act and found the play got along well without one.

I usually saw two-thirds of two plays the first day, slept at the Y, and then saw two-thirds of two plays the second day. I then got on the highway to hitch a ride home. I usually could do the whole trip for about $12. I remember that before I started my summer job at the Co-op, I had gone to New York and saw my first Eugene O’Neill play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, that would set the tone for all the O’Neill plays I saw afterwards – about alcoholics, domineering women and dissolute men, though I cannot recall the plot at all. I also saw my first Tennessee Williams play, Orpheus Descending, about the conflict between dogmatism and narrow-minded beliefs versus freedom of thought and the free flight of the imagination. I also saw Hotel Paradiso, but I cannot remember the play at all; it was replaced in my memory by the film with Alec Guinness. I have no idea of the name of the fourth play.

I describe all this because, in the opening scenes when the FBI agents, like Keystone Cops, are chasing Rudolf Abel through the streets and subway of that great city, the million dollar scene of the streets of New York and Brooklyn transported me vividly back to that period full of memories and inspiration, and my first love – theatre. My second love – movies – would blossom in 1962 when I first saw François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, truly bracketing the period covered in the movie.

The scene in the movie is so exact, so fulsome, so rich in the texture and colour of the times, even though the male colour was predominantly gray. If the film does not receive an award, or, at the very least, a nomination for set design, and perhaps costume design as well, I would be very surprised. The film is worth seeing for the sets alone. The film is so true to the period. It proceeds in three major acts – the courtroom act, the Powers flight in the U2 and the prisoner exchange.

We are introduced to Rudolf Abel as a spy through all the apparatus of the spy – hollowed out quarters with encrypted messages, hollowed out legs of furniture, and what initially appears to be a hollow man with no emotion whatsoever, an automaton as it were. But Rudolf grows on you as his wit and stoical manner succeed in transforming him from a non-entity to, as Donavan learns to see him, a brave, courageous and principled man, even if he served an unprincipled cause.

I would later learn a great deal about Abel when I was into my spy-reading phase, both fiction and books about spies. My greatest dreams at the time were about being a spy. You would never know from watching Rudolf Abel, played as a nebbish, as a man who would go totally unnoticed in a crowd, that he was one of the greatest spies the Soviet Union had ever produced. In WW II, he had been responsible for the most brilliant and imaginative deceptions against the Nazis that probably allowed the Soviet Union to win the battle over Stalingrad.

Rylance plays Abel with quiet, stoical, understated wit; he only pretends to be nondescript. Abel responds to Donovan’s (Tom Hank’s) question about whether he is not perturbed by what was happening. Abel looks up to Donavan, with barely a touch of a smile (and even that may have been a product of my imagination), but with eyes sparkling with humour, and asks, “Would it help?” Abel remains inscrutable in the film and you would never know in watching the movie that Abel had been responsible for Operation Berezino during WWII and then Operation Scherhorn, or that he had run the biggest and most important string of Soviet spies in the USA. In the film, we are simply told he was important to the Soviet Union because he could be turned and reveal secrets.

At the end of the film, just before Abel is returned to the Soviets, Donavan turns to him and asks, “Aren’t you afraid of what could happen to you upon your return?” Rudolf quips, now with still a slight but at least noticeable ironic smile, “Would it help?” He then tells Donavan that if they embrace me when I return, I will be alright. We watch him cross, get into the back seat without any warm homecoming at all. We are left to fear that he will be executed, even though Stalin is now dead. In reality, Rudolf Abel returned to the Soviet Union to receive its highest accolades and honours. He continued to serve his ideological homeland.

In the first courtroom part of the film, Donovan, cannot save Abel from being convicted, and too little of the case is shown to indicate how Abel excelled as a spy. We do not even learn that he was captured because he had an alcoholic careless subordinate, who defected rather than follow orders and return home, presumably because of the fate that awaited him there. He cut a deal and turned Abel in.

Donovan is portrayed by Tom Hanks as a man of both principle deeply rooted in the religion of America, the constitution, while most or many Americans had given way to the Satanic force of McCarthyism. He is also very compassionate and certainly never simply an insurance lawyer. He was just too politically astute. Though there is one mention of his role in working for the American OSS (later the CIA) in WWII and serving on the legal team at Nuremberg (he was general counsel I believe), he is overwhelmingly portrayed as a simple insurance lawyer. One would never know he was a founding partner in the firm; as one source of suspense, we are left to wonder whether he will be fired because he had become an embarrassment for the firm for defending a Soviet spy.

There is another trait he had that made him a superb negotiator that is barely hinted at in the film. The real Donavan was reputedly a terrific listener. In the words of his daughter, he “used the art of negotiation as his weapon of choice. He felt that a person simply wants to be respectfully heard, and that it is only when you listen well that you can reach the most just results.”

However, the simplification of character and the distortion of history should be no surprise for a Steven Spielberg film which readily sacrifices historical truth for a dramatic trick, except when it comes to scenery – see Oscar Schindler. But why not learn about Abel as a spy and how he was betrayed by his alcoholic incompetent assistant? His life is left as spare as his acting so that we only have sympathy for him through the eyes and heart of Donovan.

Francis Gary Powers is another matter. He is a hunk, an empty cipher in comparison to the mild-mannered but evidently very deep Abel. But we learn nothing more. We are given no reason to believe that he has any knowledge that would be at all useful to the Soviet Union. We are led to believe that Americans hated Donovan for defending a communist spy – the cliché scene in the subway where all the passengers are reading about the case and looking with scorn at Donovan whom they recognize from his picture in the newspaper. Later, true to the cynical neo-nihilist perceptions of Ethan and Joel Coen who co-wrote the script with Matt Charman, the fickle American public will look on him with admiration for being the hero who gets Gary Powers and another American student returned. (He actually got two; the second was returned a year later.) Though the cynical view of FBI and CIA agents can be expected in a Coen film, this jaundiced view is offset by the heroic qualities Spielberg lends to Donovan. Blending heroic idealism with political cynicism is a specialty of Spielberg’s – see Lincoln. In fact, this movie is a tour de force in creating such a paradoxical synergy.

The film is dominated by contrasts, between the pastel shades and happy family life of Donovan – though his wife is portrayed as a stereotypical fearful partner – and the shabby deterioration of East Germany and the lonely life of Rudolf Abel. Donovan’s principled character and determination to get the student as well as Powers in exchange for Abel stands in stark contrast with the CIA agents who are eager to conclude the deal without getting the student in return. The Western and Eastern systems in the Cold War are portrayed as equally full of venal and opportunistic men and judges who are political advocates, but America has the constitution to prevent Americans from betraying themselves. In contrast, the Soviet Union is bereft. Except, even the U.S. constitution in which Donovan so ardently believes does not work. The Supreme Court votes 5 to 4 to deny Abel the right to be protected from a search without a proper warrant.

That is why, at the end of the film, when the prisoners are exchanged, the two sides of the Glienicke Bridge where the exchange takes place mirror each other just as Abel’s face and portrait so precisely mirror one another. What saves the world in the end are honourable men; Donovan and Abel are both honourable men. The difference is that Abel serves his country blindly; Donavan has his conscience intact to save the country from its own weaknesses. He is a Western lawman who has traveled in the other direction to Berlin and East Germany. Instead of carrying a gun, instead of being the quickest on the draw, he carries words rather than weapons. He carries the art of persuasion rather than the art of intimidation.

So does the film. The film uses artifice so well, particularly the artifice of realism, so that one loses any sense of historical reality.

The movie takes place in four time slots – 1957, 1960 when the U2 is launched, 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built and Frederic Pryor, a young American graduate student, was arrested inadvertently as a spy by Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, and February of 1962 when the exchange takes place. But the time is condensed. The events could be taking place both simultaneously and one after the other. There is no historical development. The world had, however, radically changed in the five years between 1957 and 1962, the period when Nikita Khrushchev first visited America and then the year when he agreed to withdraw his missiles from Cuba and avoid the nuclear clock striking midnight.

In the summer of 1957, American gangsters were still machine gunning one another in barber’s chairs, but Eisenhower had ordered a cessation of nuclear testing. But other events were ominous. The first American had been killed in Vietnam. By 1962, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had resumed the nuclear arms race with an acceleration in testing making all our work in the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCNF) – I was a founder of the University of Toronto chapter – seem wasted. In 1957, Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas, as the latest iteration of Governor Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi who we had sang about as kids in camp, used his national guard in Little Rock to prevent the integration of a high school. By 1962, the civil rights movement had found its legs.

1962 was so different in many ways. Fidel Castro was portrayed as a heroic rebel in The New York Times in 1957. In 1962, he was the supreme ruler of Cuba and had been ex-communicated by the Pope for suppressing the Catholic Church. Much later, I would also learn in my study of the Rwanda genocide, that the initial pattern of the genocide had been set that year when Rwanda had acquired its independence from Belgium.

The movie misses the opportunity to present that development and to show why what seemed impossible in 1957 was feasible in 1962, how the period of total paranoia morphed into the first real openings between East and West even as it approached the most devastating crisis in history for all humankind. One would never know the Bay of Pigs was just around the corner when Donovan would once again bring his negotiation skills to repatriate the 1,100 captured invaders in exchange for badly needed food and medicines. The film is too much of a comedy caper to anticipate an apocalyptic moment – the Cuban Missile Crisis – and the step back from the breach that then took place.

History does not just march on because Tom Hanks has a doozie of a cold and is impatient to get the spy exchange over. In that sense, the film is very different than the book by Giles Whittell, on which the script was based, which uses the exchange of spies to track changes and developments in the Cold War. After all, 1962 was also the year in which the Soviet spy in Britain, Kim Philby, escaped to the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the film does highlight the superiority of jaw, jaw, jaw over war, war and war symbolized by Donavan surrendering his Cold War warm coat or cloak to a gang of hoods organized by the KGB. But one would never suspect that the everyman Tom Hanks plays would go on to run for Senate and lose to Jacob Javits.

Black Book: A Review

Black Book: A Review


Howard Adelman

This past Wednesday at Holy Blossom Temple, one of the best of the Holocaust historians, Michael Marrus, gave a superb lecture as part of Holocaust Education Week. His thesis was straightforward. The evidence was overwhelming to support the proposition that the Holocaust did not end with the conclusion of WWII. The sources of evidence he offered were quite varied and often complex.

Michael did not put forth the thesis that anti-Semitism, which had such a vicious expression in the Nazi murder of six million Jews, gradually morphed into a new alleged form of anti-Semitism – anti-Zionism and the disproportionate attacks against the Jewish State of Israel. Rather, Michael took up the historian’s argument that the Holocaust continued in the immediate aftermath of the war. As he began his lecture, there could be no focus on the Holocaust immediately after the end of WWII itself because neither the international community, nor the lands where those Jews were slaughtered, nor the Jews themselves, had any way to specifically identify what had happened to the Jews. The word “Holocaust” took a much longer time to settle into our language.

As Michael documented, for the USSR, the Jews who died sacrificed themselves in the fight against fascism. French Jews died for the greater glory of de Gaulle’s mythological re-creation and vision of France. There was then no discussion of the degree of collaboration, though many collaborators and alleged collaborators were dealt with swiftly and cruelly after the war. Nor did those creating the new myth of a France reborn from the resistance ever pay much attention to the fact that an estimated 15% of Frenchmen on average over the years were active or ideological collaborators, that almost 85% percent were standbys, that is, servile, reluctant collaborationists, who stayed out of the fray. Only perhaps .1% actually participated in the resistance. All of these figures fluctuated over the course of the war and shifted with its fortunes.

In Holland (a long time supporter of Israel), it is worthy of note, and of great relevance to the movie I will be reviewing, that one of the highest if not the highest proportion of the 140-150,000 native-born Dutch Jews and approximately 35,000 former German Jews were sent to concentration camps from Holland than from any other country in Europe. An estimated 75% died in the Holocaust. At the same time, Holland had fewer rescuers recognized as righteous gentiles by Yad Vashem than Poland, in spite of the number of killings and even pogroms in Poland in the immediate aftermath of the war. This discrepancy could be explained because the population of Poland was much larger than that of the Netherlands. [I expect Michael Marrus to correct me if these estimates are way off the mark.] More importantly, for the purpose of Michael’s lecture, the death of the millions of Jews was almost always made part of a larger story of valour and sacrifice. In the popular imagination, Jews were not killed because they were Jews. They were killed and were martyrs for a variety of different mythologies.

The overall numbers of Jews killed constituted a significant number, but still only a small number of the overall death toll from the war. In terms of survivors, the surviving Jews, the 200,000, were an even much smaller percentage. Besides, in a devastated Europe after the war, few had time to think about the death of the Jews, including the Jews themselves. Virtually everyone was focused on survival.

After the talk, a survivor came up to me and discussed her experience after the war, effectively confirming Michael’s thesis. Though she tended to stress the disinterest of the gentiles in what had happened to the Jews, I reminded her that I myself was preoccupied with other matters and had not paid much attention to the Holocaust from 1945 to 1960. In university as an undergraduate, the plight and flight of the Hungarians in 1956 and the Suez War, the fear of strontium 90 and the atomic arms race, were at the forefront of my mind. It was not until the Eichmann trial in the early sixties that the Holocaust come to the forefront of my concerns.

In 1960, my family with a newborn baby (Jeremy, now a renowned historian at Princeton University), took possession of a rented house at 586 Spadina Avenue; we rented the upper two floors to effectively reduce our rent while I was a graduate student. The landlord was moving to Montreal. It turned out he was a Holocaust survivor. He belonged to the small minority of Jews who survived the Holocaust when it reached Hungary in the final year of the war, though tens of thousands of Jews had died in Horthy’s forced labour camps before the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944. Only then did the wholesale deportation of most of Hungary’s 800,000 remaining Jews begin.

Our landlord was not just a survivor. He had compiled a book documenting what happened to memorialize the Hungarian Jews who had died in the extermination of the Jews of Hungary. It was called The Black Book. It had been self-published. As a condition of the rental of the house, I had agreed to make an effort to find libraries and individuals to purchase the over thousand copies he had stored in his basement. Though I am sure I did not try nearly as hard as he did, to the extent that I did, I found very few takers for the books, though I took a copy and read it. Was I appalled at what I read? Not really. It certainly made me weep, but my main reaction is that he could have used a good editor.

I only make this point to reinforce Michael’s thesis that the Holocaust did not end with the termination of WW II. It continued, not only with the physical persecution of returnees, with the resistance to giving up property to those few survivors, but in the second visitation of the Holocaust, the initial disappearance of the slaughtered Jews from memory and from history in the immediate aftermath of the war.

This is important. For in restoring the Holocaust to memory, and doing so in such a pronounced way, unfortunately a new heroic mythology replaced the previous repression. One dominant theme was that the gentile nations helped bring Israel into existence because of their guilt over the Holocaust, or, at least, over their guilt about the death of the six million whose slaughter still had no-name. Michael cited the Harrison Commission Report after the war. Harrison and his team visited devastated Europe and looked at the situation of the Jewish survivors after the war. In Michael’s recounting, as a result of the Harrison Report, the Jewish survivors were brought together into one camp under the auspices of the United Nation Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), treated much better and given a great deal of self-government within the camps.

I recalled another side of the Harrison Report. The reason the Jews were still in camps after the war is that no one wanted the remnants of the Jews of Europe. By 1947, the 200,000 Jewish refugees soon became a bone of contention between the United States, a country that wanted to settle them in Palestine, and Britain which did not. When I read the Report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine Report (UNSCOP), the minutes of its meetings and the diaries and memoirs of its members who participated in the Committee that would recommend the partition of Palestine, what stood out for me was that there was not one mention of the Holocaust or of the six million who died. The focus was on what to do with the 200,000 refugees that countries were still unwilling to resettle.

The belief that Israel was created because of guilt and as a recompense for the Holocaust, a myth shared by many if not most Jews, is just that – a myth. It is has no basis in historical fact. It is a myth perpetuated in many Holocaust films, perhaps most notably in the most famous one of them all, Schindler’s List. The film ends with the refugees leaving Europe as the wretched of the earth and reappearing coming over a hillside, healthy and alive in a reborn Israel that has arisen out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

Last night we watched a movie on Netflix that by chance was called Black Book, Zwartboek, not The Black Book. I had not caught the title of the movie before we began to watch it, though I noticed it had been co-authored (with Gerard Soeteman) and directed by the Dutch-Hollywood filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven on 2006. I recognized his name, but my shrinking brain could not at that time recall the names of the films he had directed. (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct) Further, it did not help that the selection of the film to watch yesterday evening was a matter of complete happenstance and was totally unrelated to Michael’s lecture earlier in the week and my discussion after the lecture. It was only after we finished watching the film that I learned that the title was Black Book.

As it turns out, Paul Verhoeven is my age, actually six months younger. He lived in The Hague during the war while I lived safely in Toronto. But though shaped by very different experiences, we have a number of personal historical factors in common. For example, we both switched careers at an early age – he went from a PhD in mathematics to filmmaking while I went from medical school into philosophy. He is mesmerized by religion, particularly Jesus. He even flirted for a short time with evangelical Christianity. But we are very different in our tastes – like my youngest children, but unlike me, he thinks Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the greatest thing since the invention of the bagel. Ignoring these differences, and some other coincidental similarities, quite aside from the radical differences in our experiences and expressions, I truly believe I can get inside Verhoeven’s head and see what he wanted to portray in the movie.

The movie is a classic Hollywood film in that the narrative pushes and, indeed, rushes the film forward, even though the mechanics of the plot are quite complex. But it is also a movie about character, about virtue and vice and the difficulty in distinguishing the two. Unlike a typical Hollywood narrative film, this one is rich in irony. Further, the film was inspired by real historical characters.

A kibbutz in Israel provides the frame of the film. It begins when a busload of tourists to a kibbutz in Israel disgorges a redhead and her Canadian pastor husband. Suddenly the visiting tourist recognizes the teacher in the kibbutz, Rachel Rosenthal, née Stein. As a spy for the Dutch Resistance, she infiltrated Nazi headquarters, under the assumed name, Ellis de Vries. The two women had been together in occupied Holland at the end of the war. We learn during the film that both had become intimate with the Nazis, but for very different reasons.

At the end of the film, we see the other half of the frame, which I will not give away. But one part I will describe. The movie ends, not only in revealing a key piece of information about the kibbutz that had been withheld from viewers, but it is clear that we are suddenly at the beginning of the start of a new war, the Suez War, and the message of eternal recurrence rather than a phoenix arising out of the ashes of the old is unequivocally broadcast.

The movie is at once a war action flic, a spy movie, a film about magic and deception and a detective whodunnit to discover who was behind one trap after another for the Resistance, even discovering that each disaster had been a trap. The movie is even akin to the serials we saw in Saturday matinees as children, often about a damsel in distress rescued by a hero when the heroine is tied down on the tracks as a locomotive approaches, along the lines of The Perils of Pauline from the silent film era. And the situation keeps recurring in different guises. After all, this film is not just a fictional narrative, it is pulp fiction, but a pulp fictional representation of reality with a very serious theme. The movie offers a profound exploration of morals and atrocities in Holland in the final year of the war and its immediate aftermath. As it happens, the most horrific scenes in the movie take place after Holland has been liberated by the Canadians. And the most painful moments come just before those scatological scenes, before liberation, when the anti-Semitism on the part of the Resistance is portrayed.

The final scenes are adumbrated when a farmer is hiding the main heroine, the Jewish Rachel Stein girl, alias Ellis de Vries, played brilliantly by Carice van Houten (to my grandson, Eitan, in Israel – yes, this is the same actress who plays Melisandre of Asshai in your favourite series, Game of Thrones). The farmer asks Rachel to say the Christian benediction for the dinner they are about to eat which she had just memorized. Rachel says it flawlessly and, in my mind, I commended the farmer for helping her develop her gentile disguise as a hidden Jew. But suddenly the farmer remonstrates her and insists that the Jews would not be in such trouble if they had followed their saviour, Jesus.

This coming Friday, I believe I will be writing about Rachel as I wrote about Rebekah this past Friday. Rachel married Jacob to become the mother of Israel. I believe the naming in the film is no coincidence. At the same time, Rachel is a universal character, echoing those lines in The Merchant of Venice. But instead of her eyes and her mouth being in common with non-Jewish women, it is her breast and her hips.

That scene, and the scene of the Resistance just before Liberation, reminded me of the role of Dr. N. S. Blom, the Dutch delegate on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Holland is generally lauded by Israel for its strong support of Israel after the war. Except Blom was one of two delegates on the Commission required to follow the dictates of the Dutch foreign office. (The other was the Australian delegate, John Hood.) Blom had strict instructions to abstain or vote against partition lest his vote alienate the Arab vote which Holland needed to support its colonial position in Indonesia. (Blom was an ex-senior Dutch foreign service officer who had served in Indonesia.)

By luck, only weeks after, the peace negotiations between the Dutch government and the Indonesian rebels seeking independence led by Sukarno broke down in July of 1947, Subsequently, there was an impasse between the Dutch and the Indonesians over independence. The Arab High Committee voted to lend its support to Sukarno for independence. Only then, just two weeks before the partition recommendation, was Blom freed up from the instruction to abstain and allowed to cast a vote supporting partition. The Dutch, as it turned out, had another, a darker side to their heroic support for Israel.

That is one of the best elements in the film, the upturning of myths about the Resistance, including the one in his own 1977 heroic war epic, Soldier of Orange. Unlike that movie, The Black Book thrives on ambiguities and displacement, the magical inversions in which the best are revealed as among the worst and the worst emerge as virtuous souls, the cerebral underpinning made all the richer by the pulp realistic portrayal of death, of bodily functions and of the body itself. The film is not so ambiguous that it frees itself from the stereotypical vulgar Nazi war murderer, portrayed as Günther Franken as the deputy Gestapo chief, the Obergruppenführer, and a stereotypical villain in spite of Verhoeven’s insistence that all his characters are neither just good or bad. In fact, the ambiguity about Franken is that he is not just a crazy killer and a loutish pursuer of the female flesh, but that he is a thief and a crook to finance his life and planned escape after the end of the war, incidentally a far worse evil for Hitler’s regime than the cold-blooded killing of Jews and resistance fighters.

The film was justifiably voted as the best Dutch film ever and won numerous awards and three Golden Calves from the Dutch Film Academy. Many critics are bothered by the numerous coincidences that propel the plot – such as Rachel Stein as Ellis de Vries who first meets the head of the Gestapo, commander Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), accidentally on a train, a meeting which saves her from her Nazi pursuers. Coincidences do not bother me, any more than the coincidence of my discussing The Black Book on Hungarian Jewry lost in the Holocaust and then watching Black Book unintentionally three evenings later.  Coincidences are only a problem when they are improbable. And it was not improbable that Rachel would seek a haven and flash her smile at a German officer sitting alone in a train compartment in the search for an escape. Further, the series of coincidences are congruent with one dominant theme in the movie, the issue of moral contingency.

I have not really said much about the plot – it is such a plot-driven film that I do not want to spoil it, or the musical score and the cinematography and editing, but they all mesh together beautifully.

So don’t let anyone tell you that this is just a soapy melodrama. Watch the film if you have not already seen it.

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game


Howard Adelman

The Imitation Game won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) in 2014. I missed seeing it there. When we were in Victoria, the film arrived in movie houses the week after we left. The movie was unavailable in Mexico, but we did watch the Oscars and noted that the movie was nominated in eight categories for best motion picture, best leading actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), best supporting actress (Keira Knightley), direction, music score, editing and production design. It won one Oscar for Graham Moore’s best adaptation as a screenplay I thought the brilliant musical score by Alexandre Desplat that interweaves gravity with suspense should have won. Desplat did win, but for The Grand Budapest Hotel. To add to our frustration, the movie was no longer on screens in Victoria when we returned. Finally, last evening we had a breather and rented the film on Netflix.

What a terrific movie! A spy thriller without the chase, with very little about betrayal, but an enormous overload about secrecy and deception, the movie was as engaging as any action suspense film. It was not a complicated symbolic allegory in the guise of a comic thriller like one of my favourite all-time films, North by Northwest, but a straightforward moral parable. One moral – respect differences. Simple and almost trite, the message was in your face for the line was repeated three times: “Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one imagines.” Those differences include brilliance, homosexuality, and even misogyny in the name of decorous behaviour.

The latter was expressed in the role of Joan Clarke played with consummate skill by Keira Knightley. The moral includes defying prejudice based on gender. “I’m a woman in a man’s job. I don’t have the luxury of being an ass,” declares Joan Clarke to Alan Turing’s astonishment, an individual who is brilliant but also both arrogant and socially awkward, characteristics often twinned in mass perceptions of genius and carried off with consummate skill in the interpretation of the lead character played magnificently by Benedict Cumberbatch. He speaks sometimes with pursed and at other times with furled lips. He carries his body with slightly hunched shoulders and arms held closely to his sides. So his body language conveys both repression and a passion for expression just waiting to explode as in the scene played, not by Cumberbatch, but by Alex Lawther portraying Turing as a young man when he first hears of his friend Christopher’s death over the school holidays and is adamant in denying that they were close friends.

Thus a movie about unveiling secrets begins with a suave secret service intelligence chief (Mark Strong) lurking in the wings supporting the application of Alan Turing to work at Bletchley’s Park’s code-breaking unit in the famous Hut 8 and running interference for Turing in his dealings with his rule and proper order and discipline commandant, Commander Denniston, played incidentally as a terrific caricature by Charles Dance. Secrets abound and overflow in the movie. The enterprise at Bletchley Park was so secret according to the film that no one knew about the intelligence operation until fifty years later – sheer nonsense of course. In the creative area alone, excluding scholarship, Hugh Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code was produced in 1986, and that play was based on earlier released or uncovered information about code-breaking at Bletchley Park; Sekret Enigmy, a Polish film, came out in 1979. The film was full of many more secrets: the German secret codes that the British were trying to decrypt, Alan Turing’s homosexuality, the presence of a Soviet spy among those working on the decoding effort, Alan Turing’s deep love for his friend at his private school when he was a schoolboy, and on and on.

What is not so secret is that this biopic using real events is but a parable with less rather than more imitation of what historically took place. However, it has wonderful characteristics as a superb parable – simple, straightforward and, also, utterly wrong when tested with actual particulars. Though an adult parable based on history, one set of events focuses on a group of brilliant British mathematicians gathered at Bletchley Park in Great Britain to break the enigma code during WWII. They did it. Breaking the code played a significant role in winning the war. In the parable, these geniuses did so by themselves, even inventing a machine to do the job called initially the Turing machine and subsequently a computer and even building the machine themselves though initially Turing does the construction by himself. Actually, Gordon Welchman built the machine.

Further, they allegedly not only invented the computer and built it, but invented the system for keeping their discovery a secret. The movie suggests that these geniuses had the fortitude and stiff upper lip to allow some of their fellow Brits, including a brother of one of the team members, to be killed by the Germans lest the fact reach the Germans that the allies could read all the German signals intelligence sent via enigma through the rest of the war. By hard-headed withholding their information for a time, they saved countless more lives over the long run.

This provides the second moral message of the film to counter-balance the first. It focuses on the leader of the team, Alan Turing. Instead of insisting on sensitivity and respect for differences, the second moral demanded hard heartedness in order to produce better results – self-preservation or more lives saved over the long run or, in the case of one interpersonal scene, a better quality of life for another whom one loved in one’s own way. That moral was in keeping with Alan Turing’s alleged response in private school described above when he learned that his best friend at school, Christopher, had died and he refused to admit that Christopher was his close friend. The lesson he had learned when he was being bullied and entombed under floorboards at school was that if you prevented the bully from getting any satisfaction from your suffering, that is, if you keep your suffering secret, the motivation of the bully would be undermined. Carry a stiff upper lip as a top British value is celebrated in this film at the same time as the British state is heavily criticized for its anti-homosexual laws and punishments. Tolerance and self-repression can be celebrated as twins for, in a parable, there is no need to sort out contradictions.

The title of the film, The Imitation Game, was a phrase Alan Turing used for a test to see whether machines could imitate, not human minds, but a certain part of the mind dealing with reasoning, what he and we now call artificial intelligence, though it is no more artificial than our human reasoning. The paradox, however, was that in order to make a machine that imitated human reasoning one needed to use creative artifice in the first place to create the machine. The Imitation Game also had a second meaning in the film. Alan Turing was a man capable of stupendous decrypting of complicated codes but seemingly incapable of decoding ordinary human discourse and modes of social interaction. He was both a homosexual and an odd duck. Alan had to learn to imitate ordinary human behaviour to get by in the world. Thus, Joan Clarke allegedly teaches him to engage in ordinary human games by bringing his fellow workers – quite awkwardly at first – a present of apples, a scarce commodity in war time Britain.

The second set of events focused on Alan Turing’s personal life both before the war when he was attending a private school at what we would call the secondary level. Snippets of his past were interwoven through the film along with Alan Turing’s arrest in 1952 after the war for being a poof – a homosexual in British slang. The investigation of his possibility of being a spy was set off by a break-in of his apartment by his on-and-off lover, Arnold Murray, but the break-in is left as a random mysterious event. He was caught in the act and, given the unjust laws at the time that made homosexual practices illegal, he was sentenced to two years in prison or, alternatively, a regimen of drugs intended to kill his libido – chemical castration. He chose the latter, but the movie suggests that the medical regimen also began to destroy his mind. He did not have enough of a stiff upper lip to endure being separated from his thinking machine, which he had named Christopher. Two years after he was arrested, he committed suicide.

There is a third level of imitation going on. The film is ostensibly a biopic of Alan Turing as well as the story of the invention of the nascent computer. The imitation in both cases is helped by interspersing real scenes of suffering and destruction from WWII news stories to reinforce verisimilitude and build up the importance and the degree of risk to both Britain and its citizens if the enigma codes were not broken. But The Imitation Game is an enjoyable artifice and only uses the outline from reality to gain a sense of verisimilitude as the movie is structured as a parable, though in virtually anthropomorphizing the Turing machine, the parable almost becomes a fable in which an inanimate object is made into a human figure as in a Star Wars episode.

I do not believe I am breaking the reviewer’s code by giving away secrets revealed as the film unfolds because the interpretation of Alan Turing’s life and the events at Bletchley Park are taken to be widely known. Even if they were not, most viewers who would love this movie have already seen it. Further, the revelations do nothing to undermine our interest as the narrative unfolds. But one secret that is never really explained is why the film had to be a parable in the form of a summer romance set in the darkest days of British history rather than a more realistic biopic.

Let me deal with the summer romance first. This is a story of unrequited love between a gay man, Alan Turing, and his brilliant mathematical partner, Joan Clarke. As a summer romance, it had to star a complete innocent who emerges into his teens as retaining that youthful innocence in the face of inexplicable and arbitrary cruelty, but soon learns to hide his true feelings and identity. In the process of maturation, he grasps the vision of creating an ideal, a universal thinking machine that can be programmed to break the most complicated codes, a dream that perfectly matches the needs of Britain at the time. However, to realize his vision, he has to counter and fight against a system that resists his creativity, including his own partners in the project. But, in the end, we have an idyll and a reflection and acknowledgement of true genius and, more particularly, the role of Alan Turing in creating victory for the British people. Finally and most surreptitiously, the film envisions as an ideal, a society is which there can be complete harmony if there were as much understanding as an intelligence machine without the repression brought about by inherited prejudices and repression.

One of the advantages I had as a graduate student was sitting in on a graduate course by Northrop Frye in which I learned of a summer romance as a form of mythos. Frye stressed the archetypal characteristics of this form in which The Imitation Game fits almost perfectly. What Frye left out in his focus on the architectonics of fiction construction was the distortion of reality necessary to accomplish such a creation. I have come to believe that such distortion or, more bluntly, repression of the truth, is almost a necessary ingredient to the art form. Knowing that secret allows one to enjoy the film enormously without being too upset by the deformation of history. And there are many, beginning with the Platonic love affair between Turing and Clarke.

Look at the enormous number of distortions and misrepresentations of history in the movie:

  • The members of the intelligence team in the film are made up of a typical collective for a film – Matthew Goode playing the caddish chess grandmaster, Hugh Alexander, who finally comes to recognize Turing’s genius after first resisting his solitary efforts, John Cairncross as the easy-going Soviet spy, Alan Leech, with a friendly manner and a Scottish burr, and, most importantly, the charming, cheerful and wise beyond her years and ever loyal and warm self-sacrificing friend and true love at a far deeper level than sexual attraction, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. However, there is no effort to represent the team that actually figured out how to decrypt enigma. That team included several women and the man who actually built the machine who is not even included in the film
  • The Bletchley Park team was not the first to break the enigma code, a process started well before WWII
  • There were other code-breaking teams and the allies had their own system of codes as was wonderfully explored in the movie, A Man Called  Intrepid, the story of the Canadian super-spy, William Stephenson, accurately retold in Bill Macdonald’s account in his 1998 book, The True Intrepid
  • Turing, in spite of his genius, or perhaps because of it, was never put in charge
  • Using puzzle-solving expertise to recruit additional members of the team was a cute device, but this never happened
  • The Bomba made at Bletchley Park was not constructed by Turing by himself using wires and parts he had ordered, but was constructed by British manufacturers who supplied the parts that were assembled by a technical genius who was part of the team, Gordon Welchman, not by Turing
  • The invention of the “eureka” moment in the bar when the insight comes to Turing that if he paid attention just to a repeated syllable instead of the whole message, the breakthrough in decrypting messages would come almost as fast as that eureka moment; in truth, there was no such eureka moment since this was known from the start
  • There was no deadline or extension of deadlines by the bosses at Bletchley Park in reality, but the delay was used to great effect in creating suspense in the movie
  • The film leads one to believe that Turing invented the machine used for cryptography, though Alan Turing in an almost stage whisper in the movie lets the secret out that it was the Poles who originally created the idea of such a machine; Marian Rejewski and a group of his fellow Polish mathematicians had been breaking enigma codes for five or six years before the war even started
  • In reality, early versions of enigma, commercially available, were around since shortly after the first world war
  • The Polish Cipher Bureau led by the mathematician and cryptologist, Marian Rejewski, along with Jerzy Róžycki and Henryk Zygalski, created the first system of decoding enigma machines by using the principle of imitation and re-creating a reverse machine to invert the enigma process
  • The Poles even built the first machine to break codes, “the bomba”, in the year I was born in 1938, so that Turing, however great a pioneer, was not the first on the block and did not claim to be so
  • Denniston was not initially an obstreperous and condescending commander for he was the head of the British military unit that first received the Poles when they handed over their “bomba” to the British when the war began
  • After the war started, the real difficulty in decoding began with the most recent version of the enigma machines, ironically used first by the German admiralty which was actually the centre of opposition to Hitler. Their use of an enigma machine was programmed to change codes every twenty-four hours, a fact certainly stressed in the movie, but without explaining how it worked or its importance, and simply stressing that the decoders would require a machine even more than before to do the decoding. In the film, the team only gradually comes to that realization in the second year of working together; the new innovation allowed the machine on its own through repeated changes in the electrical path via a scrambler to create a variable alphabetic substitution cipher so that each key depression actually changed the electrical pathway of a message
  • The working of the machine was never explained in the movie, perhaps because such an explanation might detract from the parable, but may also have been left out to keep the audience entranced and puzzled by the plugboard, entry wheel, rotors, reflector as well as electrical contraction pins and electrical contacts that together made up the alphabet; when the rotors stepped by one twenty-sixth each time, changing the substitution alphabet at each turn, as you add rotors or increase notches, the probability of deciphering declines enormously
  • The movie refers to the 150 million millionth chance of decoding; in fact, Enigma has 158,962,555,217,826,360,000 (almost 159 quintillion) different settings
  • The creation of “Ultra,” the decoding system, as well as the entire system of spies and counter-spies, theft of code tables and other machines, German procedural flaws and failure to use random start positions by German operators, and operator errors alluded to were critical, but none as ludicrous and incredulous as the simplistic one used in the movie
  • Alan Turing did not surreptitiously on his own get his secret service handler to deliver a personal letter to Churchill pleading for the money to build the machine, but was brought on board specifically for that purpose with funding already in place, the effort initially supported by Commander Denniston
  • When Denniston had become too obstreperous, the letter sent to Churchill in 1941 was co-signed by all the senior code-breakers on the team, including Gordon Welchman, Stuart Milner-Barry and Hugh Alexander
  • The issue was neither the idea of the machine nor the funds to build it, but a critical shortage of staff and more funding for additional parts
  • As a response to that shortage, Cairncross, the Soviet spy, became part of the team only in 1942
  • The idea that the decoding team was charged with or even had the capability of working out the plans and strategies of a U-boat attack on a convoy was simply balderdash
  • Neither Turing nor his team worked out how to use the information strategically to both hide their discovery and maximize its effectiveness
  • The scene of the team burning their papers at the end of the war and ordered to do so by the secret service makes a great orgiastic colourful ending to the process, but such an action was both illegal and took credulity over Niagara Falls
  • The structure of the film using a detective who suspected Turing was a Soviet spy and inadvertently discovered he was a closet gay after his arrest in 1952 and then becomes the cipher to whom Turing told his whole tale is both unbelievable and pure nonsense, but as a parable, it works

I loved the movie as a superb parable, well told and brilliantly acted, but it was far off the mark in imitating and representing history.