We'll never know how this film would come across without the audience knowledge that its leading actor is dead. At a guess, it would be seen as well done if not innovative Le Carré, with Seymour delivering a great central performance, and there would be more attenton in the reviews to the fact this movie - which I saw yesterday, and at some point the irony of the date occured to me - , in its criticism of the secret services in a post 9/11 world already feels old fashioned, and yet also timeless. (The novel I understand was very specific about being set in the Bush era and in the early years of same to boot; the movie carefully removes all dates except it being post 9/11 and thus could be present day. In fact, there is one tiny hint in the dialogue to hint it may be, more about this in a moment.) Because there is no waterboarding scene, no NSA listening in to everyone's private conversations, no Jack Bauer type of antics; the spy methods used for the most part could be straight from the 1970s, those tropes Le Carré practically invented and which were endlessly copied thereafter: cultivating assets, getting people to commit deep betrayals with a mixture of carefully applied emotional understanding and awful pressure, passing secret messages in cigarette cases - the fact that our main character smokes constantly, even, when in film and tv world no one not clearly marked as a villain does that anymore in a non-period piece -, tailing someone in person (instead of letting technology do it for you), escaping a pursuer via a quick in and out of a subway train.
I say for the most
part, because one of the movie's themes is of course the clash between Seymour Hoffman's character Günther Bachmann's idea of spying, which involves all of the above, and the post 9/11 need to produce quick and flashy results to impress the populace without thinking through long term consequences. Le Carré, in interviews and novels, never made a secret out of his deep disdain for the current day modus operandi. And yet it's hard to think of his 1960s and 1970s novels (and the tv show and movies made out of same) as presenting the secret service work then being in some sort of bloom, rather than a constant exercise in moral compromises (at best) and betrayals (more likely), where sooner or later, trying to do if not the right than the more right feeling thing is going to get you screwed over, most probably by the institution you serve rather than your open enemies. (And of course the visual shabbiness was a deliberate counterpoint to the James Bond style glamour which pre-Le Carré had been the most popular idea of spying in pop culture.) Plus ca change: decades later, in A Most Wanted Man
, this is still the case.
strikingly different, though (in terms of Le Carré based films, not novels), is the location (Hamburg, with two brief detours to Berlin, and the film was actually shot on location, using German actors except for PSH, William Dafoe, Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright) and the fact there's not a Brit in sight, either as an actor nor as a character. (One of the reviews I read mentioned there were British characters in the book but so minor they could be cut. Not having read this particular Le Carré novel, I wouldn't know.) Now Le Carré as a young man had been stationed in Germany for a while (which led among other thing sto the hilarious characterisation of Bonn as "half the size of the central cemetery in Chicago and twice as dead" - now that's just mean, Mr. Cornwall), and German locations pop up frequently in his books, though usually not as the sole place of the action. The director, Anton Corbijin, knows his Hamburg as well, and thus you don't get any establishing tourist shots, though the cinematography dwells on the stark differences between the immigrant and asylum seekers inhabited houses and the villas of the rich. Moreover, the sole American in sight is Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright's character - the other three American actors play Germans), who, since she's the CIA's representative in a Le Carré based story it's no spoiler to say is not a heroine, and at any rate only has a supporting role with not that much screentime), so the fim is that rarity, an international movie shot and located in Germany with German characters - and not a single Nazi among them. Nor is anyone dealing with their Nazi granddad. No one is clicking their heels, either, nor has an aristocratic name. And while everyone talks English with a German accent (which is a movie and tv convention I've been complaining about before), I don't mind because the rest feels so authentic that I had no trouble suspending my disbelief. Not least because Hoffman clicks with his German support team, the most prominent members of which are played by Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl (mind you, Brühl's role is a silent one, which is a shame but otoh that means Nina Hoss gets all the bantery dialogue as Bachmann's sidekick Erna Frey, and she delivers it so well, and it's still so rare that the bantery sidekick/second-in-command is female that I don't mind), in a way that makes me entirely believe they're all from the same background wile I'm watching.
The Muslim characters, Bachmann's asset Jamal (with whom he has classic Le Carré handler/agent meetings involving male affection mingled with betrayal), who is played by Mehdi Dehbi), the iman suspected of financing terrorism, Dr. Feisal Abdullah (played by Hamouyan Ershadi), the Chechnyan-Russian wanted man of the title, Issa Karpov (played by Grigoriy Dobrygin) and the Turkish mother and son who offer him sanctuary for a while are what the Russian/insert other Eastern block nation characters would have been in a 1960s/1970s novel, which means they're presented as more sympathetic than the soulless bureaucrats from the upper level of the German secret service. (Bachmann and his ground team are sympathetic. Higher level scret service guys never are.) As mentioned, there is no waterboarding scene, but at one point we see the back of Issa Karpov who has been tortured in Chechnya and Turkey, and it's as gruesomely scar scarred that it says it all. There is an obvious present day irony in the fact that the intel declaring Karpov a terrorist comes from the Russians who "interrogated" him; the film doesn't include expositionary dialogue about how post 9/11 Putin's behavior in Chevnya was overlooked/approved by the US because hey, Muslim terrorists, as opposed to now, but the Ukraine probably wasn't an issue the general public was aware yet when the film was shot, so it might not have been intended. This also made me originally conclude the film was set in 2002/3 or thereabouts until Bachmann and Martha Sullivan had an exchange in which she said "we don't do that anymore" ("that" being what the Bushites so euphemistically termed "enhanced interrogation" as well as one way tickets to Guantanamo without bothering with legal niceties) and Bachmann retorts, "no, you want us to do it", which sounds more like an Obama era dialogue. But the movie doesn't say for good one way or the other.
Female characters: several - Karpov's idealistic lawyer, Annabel Richter, Bachman's second in command Erna Frey, Martha Sullivan and Leyla, the middleaged Turkish lady who gives Karpov shelter for a while. There is no literal Bechdel test passing (Annabel and Erna talk in a scene, but the subject is Karpov, which isn't suprising considering why they're in the same place to begin with), but I'd say the story treats them as it does the male characters. (If Annabel is a bit one dimensionally good and naive in a shady world, so is Issa Karpov.)
Still, the movie would remain in the well made but not spectacular spy film category were it not for Philip Seymour Hoffman's central performance. Günther Bachmann (whose name has two things usually hard for Anglosaxons, an Umlaut, ü, and a ch, and to the American actors' credit they do a good job on them) as the chainsmoking, drinking, clever morally ambiguous spymaster is his type of role. He can switch on the understanding, sympathetic fatherly attitude as well as the hardcore bullying one, the sly humor as well as the existential doubts (for which he doesn't need monologues, just facial expression). It's also impossible not to read the awareness of it being his last
leading role into it, because there is a rage, rage against the dying of the light element there on both the Watsonian and Doylist level (Bachman and his traditional spy methods versus the glitzy "results now
, or do you want another 9/11?" current day world). You watch him talk with Annabel Richter about trying to get rid of habits and fish out yet another cigarette with slightly trembling fingers, and of course you are aware how
he died. And he exits the movie in a way that reminds me of River Phoenix at the end of Stand By Me
; something that already works with the actor alive on an Watsonian, in-story level, but doubly so with the actor dead. ( Spoilery explanation ensues. )
And that feels as gut wrenching as in the Stand Bye Me/River Phoenix case.
Lastly, trivia for non-Germans: the film's music was composed by Herbert Gröhnemeyer, who also has a cameo role as one of Bachmann's superiors; an international audience might recall his young self playing Leutnant Werner in Das Boot
. He's one of our most famous pop musicians. Martin Bock, who plays Bachmann's boo-hiss competition within the secret service became better known abroad playing the doctor in Michael Haneke's Das weiße Band
. I don't think Nina Hoss has been in anything internationally seen yet, but am sure this will change now, because she's really good in this film (which takes some doing if most of your scenes are next to Philip Seymour Hoffman).