Dir.: Istvan Szabo; Cast: Karl-Maria Brandauer, Hans-Christian Blech, Armin Müller-Stahl, Gudrun Landgrebe, Jan Niklas, Dorottya Udvaros, Laszlo Galffy; Hungary/West Germany/Yugoslavia/ Austria 1985, 144 min.
Colonel Redl is the second part of a trilogy of true life fables dealing with the political and psychological milieu in Hungary in the early half of the 20th Century. Flanked by Mephisto (1981) and Hanussen (1988) which unfurl in Germany, Colonel Redl is set in the final years before the outbreak of the First World War in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Adapted from A Patriot For Me by John Osborne, it centres on the rise and fall of an opportunistic real life character, a bisexual Austrian officer who trades in his integrity for personal gain, betraying Austro-Hungarian secrets to the Russians on the cusp of war.
Karl-Maria Brandauer is the driving force of these three films with his sheer physicality and the mesmerising power of his performance impersonating three well known Europeans who find themselves dicing with intricate moral dilemmas. Although Mephisto is by far the most dazzling here Colonel Redl certainly has its moments under masterly direction of Istvan Szabo who cinematographer Lajos Koltai also photographed the other two features.
Alfred Redl (Brandauer) grew up in modest circumstances, but was educated at a prestigious military school. There he met fellow student Krystof Kubinyi (Niklas), who invited him to holiday on the estate of his aristocratic family. There Redl meets his sister Katalin (Landgrebe), who has a crush on him. But Alfred is drawn to Krystof, even though he would go on to enjoys the sexual favours of Katalin. Redl is a social climber and over-ambitious at work, where he rules his men with a draconian command. General Von Roden (Blech) is impressed with him, and promotes him to chief of Military Intelligence. Even though Redl is aware of his sexual ambivalence, he marries a Viennese wife from the upper classes (Udvaros), still lusting over Krystof, even though they have a falling out. Introduced to Archduke Franz-Ferdinand (Müller-Stahl), he tries to find a scapegoat, preferably from the Ukraine, whose trial would go on to send shock-waves through the officer corps. Redl is unaware of being the chosen sacrificial lamb, and after passing on secrets to his lover Velocchio (Galffy), he commits suicide on 19th March 1913 saving himself and the army a trial for treason.
Szabo plays fast and loose with historical facts, and the focus is very much Redl’s dual personality, which manifests itself in his sexual orientation and spying activities. Like many in his position, he feels alienated and pays a heavy price for professional and social success. Brandauer also brings out the sadist in him, taking pleasure in degrading others in public. His love for Krystof is equal to his envy for his position in life, and he would do anything to swop places with him. Redl excels professionally but is always aware of his lowly upbringing, he get rid of his sister by palming her off with money, but forbidding her to visit him again.
If there is one criticism here it is the over-bloated narrative. There was no need for an epic, the scenes of Redl’s youth at home add unnecessary detail. Brandauer is brillaint most of the time, but sometimes overdoes the ‘tortured soul ‘moments. The rest of the ensemble is excellent, with Landgrebe’s Katalin moving as the woman who tries desperately to change the sexual orientation of a gay man. DoP Laszlo Koltai (Malena) succeeds in re-creating the glamour and decadence of the Vienna court, everything glitters and glows, and the imperial architecture is playing a major part. Colonel Redl might not be Szabo’s most outstanding work, but it is still a stunning story and and won a BAFTA in 1986 and the Jury Prize at Cannes 1985. AS
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