Showing posts with label Cold War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cold War. Show all posts

11 December 2019

Smiley


"I've got a story to tell you," Ricki Tarr says. "It's all about spies."

I fell into a familiar comfort zone this past weekend, and watched Smiley's People again. I needed something reliable and even stately, after the random disturbances of late.



George Smiley was introduced in Call for the Dead (filmed in 1967 as The Deadly Affair), but he slips out from the wings, almost apologetically, and takes center stage in the Karla trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy; and Smiley's People. He has a couple of curtain calls later on, but they're essentially cameos.

Smiley's been played by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, and Gary Oldman. For most of us, including John le Carre, Alec Guinness holds the crown. Nor has le Carre been poorly served, for the most part, by the movies. Deadly Affair and Spy Who Came in from the Cold are both excellent. On the down side, the feature film iterations of The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House and Tinker, Tailor aren't as successful - probably due to the necessities of compression. A Wanted Man and The Tailor of Panama fall somewhere in the middle. The books work better as TV miniseries, when they're given room to breathe. Not that the long form is foolproof. A Perfect Spy and The Night Manager both suffer from being over-faithful and leaving in too much.



Which is where the BBC/Guinness versions of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People seem so exact, rigorous narratives that still allow for silence, melancholy, inhalation, even the appearance of accident, although no detail is accidental in George Smiley's world. "Topicality is always suspect," he says, in Tinker, Tailor. In other words, when you buy intelligence product, it pays to be skeptical if the product fits your needs too perfectly. And he's of course proven right: the Witchcraft material is manufactured, it's been carefully massaged to send all the wrong signals.

My particular weakness for Smiley's People is I think due to its structural integrity. It doesn't have, for example, anything like the extraordinary supporting turn by Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon - although Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase comes close. It simply seems all of a piece. 



Originally, the producers meant to follow the story arc of the complete trilogy, starting with Tinker, Tailor, following with Honorable Schoolboy, and wrapping with Smiley's People. Schoolboy apparently presented production difficulties, and they skipped it. Quite honestly, Schoolboy is the weakest of the three books, but more to the point, Smiley isn't in fact the lead actor. It makes dramatic sense to move on to book three. (It actually took five years in between.)

When it was first shown on the BBC, radio guy Terry Wogan ran a weekly feature called, "Does anybody know what's going on?" Let's storyboard Smiley's People out.



The old lady in Paris writes the General in London. He, in turn, takes a bullet in the face on Hampstead Heath. George, the old man's former vicar, is called in to clean up the mess and put the whole thing to bed. George smells a rat. What is it Toby Esterhase tells him? Karla is looking for a legend for a girl (a legend, in the jargon, is a manufactured biography, a cover story). And with only this to go on, George begins to tease out the plot.

The plausible back-story, the collateral. Otto's pal in Hamburg, the sex-club owner. The spymaster's mistress, and her hidden child. The secret Swiss bank account and the fumbling Russian diplomat in Bern. The long coat-tails of KGB's foreign operations, and why in this particular instance the organs themselves can't be trusted.



Of course it's a tangle. How not? The method is that we learn only as much as George learns, although he might very well be a step ahead of us, from habit and his larger experience. But how he proceeds has a firm logic. Toby, then Connie Sachs, which leads him to Claus at the club in Hamburg, to the kids house-sitting Otto's place, and the campground, with Otto's boat moored in the shallows and the music unbearably loud, to drown out the torment.

The formality, the inexorability, makes it all the more satisfying. Smiley gathers his resources, and closes his hand. The title is a pun, not simply Smiley's crew, his favored inside team, but his people in the sense that Kipling used it, Mine Own People, Great Britain and the British. There isn't much of the moral relativism le Carre is sometimes faulted for. Smiley's defeat of Karla isn't ambiguous, in spite of the cigarette lighter Karla discards on the cobblestones. The win is personal.



Smiley, then, represents a certain kind of Englishness. Decent and disciplined. The war generation, We Happy Few. They took on Hitler, and then fought the Cold War. "Survivor of every battle since Thermopylae," Connie Sachs says. Le Carre himself might smile, and shake his head, to imagine George characterized that way. But he's said in the past that a country's spy services reflect the nation's character. Mossad, KGB, MI-6, CIA. The way they conduct operations reveals their inner nature and their calculation of political gain or loss.

Smiley is also betrayed by his wife (with his best friend, who's also of course a Soviet asset), and you could make the case that British SIS, once dominant, is the cuckold of the intelligence world, abandoned and orphaned by its CIA stepchild. Or perhaps that's too fanciful. Let's just say that Smiley, like Alec Guinness, is emblematic of his time and class. We might even be allowed to think of class as the key to Smiley, his protective coloration. He navigates the currents, eddies in still waters, and waits his turn.





27 November 2019

The Mighty Wurlitzer



Lara Prescott's novel The Secrets We Kept is about CIA's successful efforts in the late 1950's to bootleg Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which Novy Mir had refused to publish in the USSR. The manuscript was smuggled out, and translated into Italian. CIA arranged for the first Russian-language edition, hoping to embarrass the Kremlin. They got more than they hoped for when Pasternak won the Nobel Prize but was discouraged (to put it mildly) from accepting. For the Soviet Union, it was a public-relations disaster, the engines of terror fearful of a poet.

The Secrets We Kept is deliciously juicy, on any number of levels, and terrifically serious. The catty asides, on the one hand, the abyss of the Gulag on the other. The voices carry the story, and the sense of period is absolutely convincing. I highly recommend it, as a fiction - although I don't imagine Lara Prescott needs my help, she's getting a lot of good press - but also in the documentary sense, as a corrective. The history is genuine.

White propaganda, so-called, is basically information, although it may well be slanted in your favor. Think, for example, the Voice of America, or Radio Moscow. You know the source. Grey, though, is more along the lines of a false-flag operation, where a story, pro or con, might be planted in a supposedly neutral (or even hostile) media environment. Black propaganda is deniable. The provenance isn't traceable.

Back in the 50's and 60's, this effort was managed with a certain sophistication, as well as brute force. The legendary Frank Wisner, one of CIA's clandestine chiefs, called it "the Mighty Wurlitzer," and it was an instrument Wisner played well. The coordination of underlying narrative is a tool of spycraft, generally, as in the development of a legend, using false background material or selective truths, but Wisner wasn't just selling ice to Eskimos, he was developing a brand. He was mythologizing America, and American virtues, as dedicated countermeasures against Stalinist myth and methodology.

This exemplifies and defines the Cold War. The crazy thing to me is how it's redefined itself, and metastasized, in the present day. Obviously, you can blame the Internet, or social media, but there seems to be something more afoot. We've internalized this Wall of Noise. One of the standard practices of Intelligence is discrimination. All information isn't equal. The phenomenon we're seeing now is that everything has the same weight, that it deserves a hearing. Which gives rise to dense constructions of unreason, hysteria, alternative realities. You have to wonder if it's a symptom, or the disease itself. It's like the Black Death, in the Middle Ages. It made no sense, it struck down the evil and the virtuous alike, the young, the old, the hale, the sick. It didn't matter. There was no explanation, other than the Hand of God. This is like some willed, mass brain death, a plague of information noise. What will the post-Apocalyptic world be like? One thing we might wish for is a large, empty silence. 

13 November 2019

Our Discontents


Edward Snowden has a book out, called Permanent Record, wherein he explains himself, and his betrayal of his country's secrets. Jonathan Lethem gives it a very sympathetic and thoughtful reading in The New York Review of Books:
I've never pretended to have much sympathy for Snowden, myself. He's a defector in all but name, and did make love to this employment. Esli igrat' ovsta, vstretit' volk blizko, Russian folk wisdom has it. "If you act the sheep, you'll meet a wolf nearby."


I    SNOWDEN

Snowden's storyline is different from, say, Daniel Ellsberg's. Ellsberg knowingly put himself in jeopardy. After the NY Times and Washington POST began publication of the Pentagon Papers, he was indicted for the theft and unauthorized release of classified documents. The judge in the case dismissed all charges and declared a mistrial on the grounds of government misfeasance - the Plumbers are one part of the picture, while Nixon's people offered the judge himself an appointment as FBI Director - and Ellsberg walked.

Snowden never showed this kind of willingness to take responsibility for his actions. He shopped the information around, and he was canny with his tradecraft. When he jumped ship, he took care to reformat all the hard drives on his old computers, and he took four new laptops with him on his way to Hong Kong, one for secure comms, one for normal comms, one as a decoy, and the last with what's called an air gap, meaning physically isolated from insecure networks and in fact never connected to any network at all. Let's accept that this is a sensible precaution - for somebody going over to the enemy. Snowden's explanations ring hollow. I'm sorry. You can embrace paranoia, you can say, look what happened to Ellsberg. (You can of course go further. Gordon Liddy, one of the Plumbers, famously said he'd willingly stand on a street corner, and they could whack him. One way not to be subpoenaed by a grand jury.) Snowden is taking steps to protect himself, but at the same time, he's playing to the cheap seats.

He sees himself as some kind of James Bond. Do we really imagine he's concerned with the privacy of American citizens, or NSA's abuse of civil rights? Gimme a break. This is a guy with an over-inflated sense of his own importance. He imagines himself in the lead part, but in truth he's nothing more than a cameo. He moves some of the furniture around, and exits.


II   PHILBY

Spy memoirs are a subset of the political or campaign biography, and the defector memoir is even narrower and more specific, being in practice targeted disinformation, self-serving and untrustworthy. Kim Philby's My Silent War is a canny business model.

Philby was the foremost of the Cambridge Five, arguably the most successful KGB penetration of Western intelligence during the Cold War. He was recruited in the 1930's, and maintained his cover for almost thirty years, before escaping to Moscow. He betrayed sources and methods, and compromised an uncounted number of assets. There's no way of knowing how many of them were tortured and executed. Not least, he poisoned the relationship between the UK and US security services for years afterwards - the Americans thought the British spy world was riddled with poofs and Pinkoes - and led to a fury of counterintelligence investigations and an abiding institutional mistrust.

Philby's memoir, published five years after his defection, is a fascinating study in misdirection, not to mention settling old scores. Massaged by his Russian handlers,  if not entirely ghostwritten under KGB discipline, My Silent War captures something of Philby's own voice, preening and petulant, completely self-absorbed. His justifications are without irony, maintaining a Stalinist fiction. He's impervious to his own contradictions, to his personal history, let alone the historical confusions of his own time. The point of the exercise seems to be embarrassing as many of his professional contemporaries as he can, Angleton at CIA, his MI5 interrogators, who never managed to catch him in a lie. More importantly, from the point of view of an analyst or debriefer, Philby's account leads even a more careful reader away from certain observable evidence, plants false flags, creates suspicion, upsets the commonly accepted, and afflicts the comfortable. It's intentional mischief.


III  UN-AMERICAN

When he heard from MI6 that Philby was a proven traitor, J. Edgar Hoover is supposed to have said, "Jesus Christ only had twelve, and one of them was a double." There have been serious spy-hunters, and there have always been fools. Hoover may have seen Reds under the bed, and he inflated the FBI's successes, but he wasn't the hysteric many people take him for. We've got other contenders for that office.

Joe McCarthy stands in for a lot of the excesses of the Red Scare, and he bullied plenty of people, both in and out of government, until he made the mistake of going after the U.S. Army, and Eisenhower quit tip-toeing around him. Not that Ike disagreed with McCarthy on principle, most like, and Nixon owed his vice-presidency to Republican leadership brokering a deal with the party's Right, but Ike wouldn't countenance an attack on the military, his family, and the architect of his own wartime victories. McCarthy's day was done.

McCarthyism, though, casts a long shadow. It was the kiss of death for many a Democratic candidate to be labeled soft on Communism. David Halberstam makes a good case that it kept Jack Kennedy from pulling the plug on American support for South Viet Nam. And in a very real sense, Nixon's engagement with China was only possible in light of Nixon's track record as an anti-Communist.

On the other hand, we have the enormous damage done by smear campaigns, gossip, fear-mongering, and the blacklist. Public shaming, livelihoods destroyed, suicides, families broken apart. It was a cover, too, for Jew-baiting and union-busting, the fluoridation scare, the polio "monkey" serum, the mongrelization of white people. It was all them godless Commies behind it.


IV   THE RUSSIANS

Given that McCarthy was a blowhard and an opportunist, it's easy to forget that the Soviet Union mounted a determined espionage effort against the U.S., aimed specifically at the atom program, but more generally at targets of opportunity, whether they were Communist sympathizers or just somebody in a position of compromise. Both the Rosenbergs and the Alger Hiss case drew enormous attention, protests that they were being railroaded, on the one hand, and people wanting their scalps, on the other. With the declassification and release of the VENONA intercepts, two things show in bold relief: first, that Hiss and the Rosenbergs were in fact guilty of spying for the Russians, and secondly, that much of the agitation in their favor was orchestrated by the Kremlin.

This is not a settled argument, by the by. You can still get a lot of grief and ridicule from the uninformed or conspiracy-minded, who'll label it deviant history, and accuse you of being a provocateur or a CIA stooge. It's an orthodoxy practiced by both sides, Left and Right, that only the pure of heart deserve a hearing. It's essentially Stalinist revisionism.

Of course there was a climate of hysteria. There was also a genuine Russian spy presence. Or more than one. KGB, state security, and GRU, military intelligence, ran compartmentalized operations. Historically, they've been rivals. KGB is generally acknowledged to have better tradecraft, GRU has been know to trip over its own feet, but whether they've worked in harness or at cross-purposes, we're talking about their cumulative score.

They've made their mistakes, they've had their successes. From penetrations (Ames and Hansen), to Wet Work (the Skripal poisonings, Litvinenko), disinformation campaigns, false flag attacks - the techniques vary, over time, as the technical resources develop. The constant, or throughline, is disruption.


V    TRUMP
  
Which brings us to the present day. The conflicting narratives about Russian interference in the 2016 election are about whose ox is being gored, but a lot of the vocabulary sounds familiar. Witch hunt, whistleblower. and so forth. I'm not going to try and sort it out.

Whether you believe there's a Deep State conspiracy (or slow-motion coup), or if you've decided the guy's a dangerous moron, is completely irrelevant. The point is that the Russians have succeeded beyond any and all expectations. Nobody could possibly imagine this would bear such poisoned fruit. I have friends on the Right who are utterly convinced that the Trump opposition is an attempted coup, and these people aren't knuckle-draggers, they're by and large intelligent, articulate people. In equal measure, I'm not alone in entertaining the idea Trump could be in the pocket of the Russian mob, or the Mexican cartels, or whoever - or that the chaos alone is reason to shit-can him. But nobody in the Kremlin is enough of a Satanic genius to have come up with this scenario. The end result is happy accident. They can't believe their luck.

I have one last comment, though. Looking at the historical record, we might call Ellsberg a hero and Snowden a dupe, even a traitor. Or it could be the other way around. The question is, what do you do? If you're trapped in this situation, if you begin to wonder whether you're the Good German, or an enabler, where do you go? Nixon demanded Cox be fired. Richardson, his AG, resigned. Where do you draw the line, and quit, when do you fall on your sword? It's no easy or obvious choice. We like to think we'd do the right thing, that we'd choose the moral high ground. Which is where, exactly? 

"You'll die on the gallows, or of the pox," Lord Sandwich once remarked to John Wilkes, and Wilkes answered, "That depends on whether I embrace your lordship's principles, or your mistress."

28 August 2019

Red Dawn


Red Dawn was released 35 years ago this August. I think it's aged pretty well. The silly stuff is just as silly as it was back then, and the good parts still hold up.

If you don't know the premise, here it is: Russia invades the U.S. Proxy forces from Cuba and Nicaragua come boiling up the middle of the country, between the Rockies and the Mississippi, the Soviets reinforce across the Bering Strait and down into the Great Plains. Caught by surprise, small pockets of resistance spring up, and in a small Colorado town, a bunch of high school kids learn evasion and ambush techniques, and take the fight to the occupying troops. If it all sounds faintly ridiculous, it is.



The writer/director John Milius got raked over the coals for what was widely seen as a Red-baiting, loony Right fantasy, but in spite of the fact that Gen. Al Haig loved it, Red Dawn is deeper than it seems, at first blush. It's not really about Colorado teenagers at all. To me, it was obvious from the get-go that Milius was making a picture about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the kids were stand-ins for the mujahideen.



Aside from that, or in spite of it, or any and all of the above, I'm always drawn in by the sheer exhilaration of the movie-making. Once you swallow the set-up, the rest of it is inevitable, fated and austere. It's beautifully shot, by Ric Waite, the New Mexico locations framed in wide ratio. The score, Basil Poledouris. The rigorous structure, and the kinetic pacing, but at the same time a sense of natural rhythms, the movement of the seasons, the shape of silence. For an action picture, it's got its fair share of stillness and melancholy.  



And for all that it's about the kids, it's actually the grown-ups who put it in sharper relief. Powers Boothe, the American pilot who bails out over occupied territory. "Shoot straight for once, you Army pukes," has got to be one of the great exit lines. Bill Smith, the Spetsnaz colonel brought in to exterminate the Wolverines. "You need a hunter. I am a hunter." (Bill Smith speaking his own Russian, a bonus.) Ron O'Neal, the Cuban revolutionary who loses his faith. "I can't remember what it was to be warm. It seems a thousand years since I was a small boy in the sun."

Corny? You bet. Affecting? Absolutely.



Red Dawn wears its heart on its sleeve. Its innocence, or lack of guile, is suspect, even embarrassing. But it has an unnervingly specific authenticity. It respects the conventions, and yet - I can't quite put my finger on it. The picture is subversive. It's not about glory, that's for damn sure. It's about loss, although it might be about redemption, too, but it doesn't promise us much comfort.

*

Some years later, I wrote a spy story called The Bone Harvest, set in the early onset of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I have to wonder, the way we do, how much was I influenced by Red Dawn? Which might seem like a dumb question, but let's be honest, we pick up all kinds of stuff, attracted by its texture or reflection, like beach glass or bottle caps. Hemingway once said no decent writer ever copies, we steal.



If in fact I took something away from Red Dawn for my own book, I hope it was a certain naive muscularity, the notion that you can will something to happen. I don't mean this in the meta-sense of getting a book written, I mean that the story I wanted to tell was how raw determination could put boots on the ground. Stubbornness a virtue, not playing well with others. If that's the lesson, it's not just the story arc of Red Dawn, it pretty much defines John Milius' career, but you could have a worse role model.  



09 January 2019

A Killing in Wartime


A decorated soldier, a former Special Forces captain in Afghanistan, is being charged with murder by the U.S. Army - not a domestic, or Crazy Guy Shoots Up Walmart, but combat-related, a violation of the Rules of Engagement. Matthew Golsteyn was deployed to Marjah, in Helmand Province, in 2010. The area is a major producer of poppy and a primary revenue source for the Taliban. Two of Golsteyn's troops were blown up by booby-traps, on patrol, and not long after, Golsteyn got custody of a suspected Afghan bomb-maker. The guy didn't talk, and Golsteyn was required to release him. In a CIA job interview a year later, however, Golsteyn said he knew that if he let the guy go, it was a death warrant for Afghans working with U.S. forces, and for other GI's. Golsteyn took the guy out past the wire and shot him.
That's one version, anyway. The initial investigation came up, if not empty, inconclusive. But in 2016, Golsteyn did something deeply stupid. He shot his mouth off to Fox News, and said he killed the guy. At which point, the Army reopens the case. This time, they bring capital charges.

Regardless of the merits, the case has now caught the attention of Our National Joke. Trump thinks an injustice is being perpetrated, and he's promised to look into it. "I will be reviewing the case of a U.S. military hero.... He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted killing a terrorist bomb maker while overseas." Trump, of course, doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground around the UCMJ - the Universal Code of Military Justice - and he's blithely unaware that what he's doing could compromise the case, one way or the other.

It's called Unlawful Command Influence. For example, Pres. Obama said heatedly that sex offenders in the military should be "prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged." This was later interpreted as prejudicial, and there was in fact one Navy judge who ruled out a punitive discharge at court-martial because of Obama's statement. (Trump said inflammatory things during the campaign about Bowe Bergdahl, and although the judge in that case acknowledged Trump's remarks were inappropriate, he gave Bergdahl a DD anyway.) In the Golsteyn case, we're talking about influencing a favorable verdict, or asking for dismissal. It ain't gonna happen, but we'll see if the fat lady can carry a tune.

*

Return with us now, through the mists of time, to that unlovely year 1969. Nha Trang. A suspected Vietnamese informer named Thai Khac Chuyen is taken on a boat ride out into the South China Sea, shot twice in the back of the head, and dumped over the side. Project GAMMA was a spook show, run out of 5th Special Forces under CIA discipline, and CIA signed off on Chuyen's termination  (although they'd pretend otherwise, when the shit hit the fan.) Six of the Green Berets in the unit, along with 5th SPG's commanding officer, Col. Robert Rheault, wind up in the stockade, waiting on an Article 32, preliminary hearing for a general court-martial, charged with murder.

You have to understand the politics, here. Abe Abrams had taken over from Westmoreland the year before. Abrams was a tank guy. He didn't have any patience with Spec Ops, and he especially didn't want his boys, GI's, carrying water for CIA. It was all about accountability. Abrams also thought Col. Rheault had lied to him, but this is a little tricky, because Rheault was new on the job, and may not have been fully briefed. GAMMA was restricted access, Need-to-Know. Rheault could have easily repeated the CIA cover story to Abrams, without realizing it was fabricated. Either way, the damage was done. Abrams was in a fury.

Abrams is in no way mollified by the press coverage, which reports the Green Berets are being scapegoated, first to take the heat off CIA, and secondly, when evidence surfaces that Chuyen was in fact a spy, to ask why they were charged in the first place. Killing the enemy is a soldier's first order of business. The defense asks to depose both Abrams himself, and the CIA station chief in Saigon. This hot potato goes all the way up the chain of command. Nixon instructs Haldeman to put the kibosh on the whole thing, and CIA falls in line, refusing on national security grounds to cooperate with the court-martial authorities at all. The secretary of the Army vacates the charges. Rheault asks for reinstatement. Abrams turns him down. Rheault resigns his commission and quits the Army.

Now that's what you call Unlawful Command Influence. And that's why the protocols and procedures are in place, to guard against malice, against too-easy resolutions, and against simple-minded blowhards with too much time on their hands. More honored in the breach than in the observance.

*

I've written myself about GI's, and spooks, who puts the fix in and who gets squeezed in the middle, and I'm now happy to report I've discovered somebody else working that turf, a sort of DMZ, between the wild and the sown. Martin Limón is new to me, but that's soon remedied.

Thirteen novels and counting, beginning with Jade Lady Burning and Slicky Boys, and a story collection, Nightmare Range. So far as I know, his first published appearance was in Hitchcock, in 1991. He's mixed it up a little, but for our purposes, it's the George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series that's center ring. George and Ernie are U.S. Army CID investigators in Korea, in the 1970's. They work the street, on the edge of the rackets and the black market, at the exotic and familiar overlap of Korean and American GI culture. Not so much American, mind, as American military, itself both an exotic and familiar creature.

These are terrific books, not least because the environment is a bubble off of plumb. And they're dark, no getting around it. I'm reminded not a little of Sarah Bird's wonderful novel about a career U.S. Air Force family in Japan, The Yokota Officers Club. Her book isn't a crime story, even if in part it's about secrets, but it inhabits a sort of Twilight Zone, because the world she describes is foreign, with its cadences and rigidity, and its very own vocabulary. Martin Limón gets this cold, and he does it in a similar way, by treating it as matter-of-fact.

There's a lot to be said for turning the conventions backwards. If you accept a structure, a template, the characteristics of a Western, or a Gothic, the elements of noir, it doesn't tie your hands. It can be invigorating. Martin Limón takes the police procedural and folds it in on itself, and hands it back to you with the pin pulled out.

08 November 2017

Trabismo


My pal Michael Parnell alerted me to an event this past Saturday, the 11th Annual Parade of Trabants, held at the International Spy Museum in DC. What's the significance of this? Funny you should ask.

Trabis were churned out in East Germany for a little over thirty years, from 1957 to 1990 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It had a two-cycle engine with 26 horsepower, zero to 60 in 21 seconds. You had to add oil to the gas, like a lawnmower or an outboard motor. They coughed and choked, and blew smoke. They didn't have a fuel pump, the gas tank was in the engine compartment, on top of the engine, the fuel was gravity-fed. 3 million of them were manufactured, and the basic design never changed.

Trabis are kind of like currywurst. The nostalgia element is tempered by the reality. They were cheap, they were crappy, they were a necessary fact of life for those East Germans who could even afford them, crappy as they were. They turned into the punchline of a joke that wasn't funny the first time it made the rounds. Then that world shifted on its axis. In mid-1989, the dominant Cold War paradigm began to collapse of its own weight, a suffocating inertia that just puddled on the floorboards. Thousands of Ossis packed up their household goods and drove their loaded, laboring vehicles through Hungary or Czechoslovakia, to get to West Germany. Like the Joads escaping the Dust Bowl, it was a leap of faith.

A lot of Trabis fell by the wayside on this journey to a better life. Abandoned, derelict, giving up the last gasp. The ones that made it had to be granted exceptions from pollution standards, they burned so dirty. And they were representative, they became proxies for everything that had gone wrong in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain.

This is an interesting transformation, or perhaps transubstantiation - the specific to the generic, water into wine - technically, I think it's an example of metonymy, where a part stands in for the whole. More than that, it's evolved. Language isn't static. Trabis are emblematic of an era, but they're a moving target. They're shorthand for the Cold War, yes, and at the same time, for Reunification and its discontents. Germans can be very thin-skinned. Like most of us, they don't like being reminded of past humiliations, especially when they've been self-inflicted. Trabants smell of failure. Not only failed history, and the failed state of East Germany, but the failure of West Germany to effectively assimiliate those former East Germans, those Ossis.

This is very much about the present, not the past, although dark echoes of the past are ready to hand. Too many Ossis were unskilled labor, not at a premium in a high-tech labor market. A lot of industry in the East was smokestack, and couldn't be retooled. West Germany was trying to integrate a territory, an infrastructure, and a population half of its own size, which had been economically and politically paralyzed since Berlin fell to the Russians in 1944. There were dislocations and disappointments. It shouldn't come as a surprise that there was a boiling point, a surge in anti-immigrant incidents, skinhead violence, scapegoating, a little too reminiscent of the Germany of the 1920's, with its pervading sense of grievance. 

Ossis are still underrepresented in the German business and political establishment (although Angela Merkel herself is an Ossi). In last September's elections, the far-right Alternative for Germany polled at 21.9 percent in the former East - they were at 12.6 nationally. This phenomenon, this alienation, is fueled by a perceived 'cultural colonialism,' an institutional condescension on the part of West Germans. The structural weaknesses of the East are abiding and genuine.

Twenty-eight years ago tomorrow, November 9th is the anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall fell.  

27 September 2017

Legacies


My pal Michael Davidson, himself a thriller writer and a former career CIA officer, remarks of John le Carré's new novel Legacy of Spies that it's up to his usual high literary standards, while going on to say, "...the work of MI6 is portrayed as exceedingly cynical and inhuman." I don't know about 'inhuman,' but 'cold-blooded' fits the bill, many of the characters all too slithery and reptilian, even for public school Brits with upper lips shot full of Novocaine. The book's dark heart is the chill of moral frostbite.


le Carre then
A Legacy of Spies is something of a swan song, or a curtain call. George Smiley takes his last bow. And a good many ghosts gather at his elbow. Alec Leamas, for one, the original Spy Who Came In From The Cold, along with Bill Haydon (Kim Philby's avatar), and Peter Guillam, one-time head Scalphunter and later Paris station chief, and even a cameo from Jim Prideaux. It's fair to say that if you're unfamiliar with Spy, and Tinker, Tailor, and in fact the earlier Call for the Dead - which first introduced the East German Steel Mission and Hans-Dieter Mundt - then this story's going to fall on deaf ears. Then again, it's unlikely you're going to push old ladies and small children into oncoming traffic to get hold of Legacy if you haven't already inhaled the ozone at the top floor of the Circus, and you need the icy rush it promises. Fear not. The old spook hasn't lost his tradecraft, and he can still wind the clock, before he starts shaking the tree.  

It's ill-advised, as a rule, to conflate a writer with his characters, but you suspect that George Smiley, if not le Carré's exact double, or even his reflection, does on occasion speak for him. There's the moment in Smiley's People when George, chasing an old asset in Hamburg, casts his mental eye East, along the shores of the Baltic, and imagines a prison empire and its subject peoples, a horizon empty of hope. This is the closest we ever get, if I'm remembering it right, to any kind of rationale on George's part, in any of the books. Is this le Carré's voice? Hard to pin down. Yes, it sounds right for George, the war generation, first Hitler, then Stalin. "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic." Then again, we know better than to trust in absolutes, or orthodox certainties. Smiley doesn't. He's lived through a damaged century.

What about loyalties, though? Bill Haydon betrays the Service, and his country, and - perhaps most unforgivably - his friends. He sleeps with George's wife Ann, first because he can ("Love to Ann - everybody's love to Ann"), but under instructions from Karla. Curiously, too, everybody involved in Operation Windfall, and the Testify cock-up, give their loyalty personally to Control, or to Smiley, cutting out the Witchcraft circle, the tainted and suspect. And for the Mustache Petes, like Guillam, their institutional loyalty isn't to the present-day Service, the glassy cubicle farm on the Thames, but to the Circus of old, not just the ill-lit corridors but its habits of mind, its Druid impenetrability.

Le Carré uses Legacy of Spies to post his epitaph on the Cold War. Or more exactly, he has Smiley do it, and we can't be entirely sure who's speaking. But when Smiley tells Peter Guillam that it was all an exercise in futility, that the clandestine wars had no real result, no satisfying narrative coda, it rings false to me. It doesn't sound like Smiley. It sounds like le Carré. And this is where I have to part company with him. I know a few other people who were once in the secret world (the above-mentioned Michael Davidson, for one) who don't buy into this, either. I think that what we did in those years, not to put too fine a point on it, kept the Cold War from getting hot. Your mileage may differ.



This isn't to say that le Carré hasn't made his bones. For sheer operational skills, he's hard to top. I still think Little Drummer Girl is extraordinary, even if you take it purely as a roadmap on how to mount covert. Legacy of Spies doesn't disappoint, I don't want to give that impression at all. In fact, I wish the book were three hundred and fifty pages long, instead of two-fifty. I'm only saying that le Carré and I take different lessons away from our own histories, our own private fictions.

28 June 2017

Wet Work


All this talk of spies, and Russian manipulation, plots divers and devious, is enough to make more than a few of us nostalgic for the Cold War. My pal Carolyn sent me a link to a recent Dexter Filkins piece in The New Yorker which speculates 'nostalgic' ain't the half of it, the body count going up as scores are settled.

We're on shaky ground here, in the Twilight Zone between coincidence and conspiracy. The politically suspect have been raw meat for years, inside Russia, journalists a favorite target, but the received wisdom has always been that the security organs don't operate with impunity in the U.S. I'm not so sure. Historically, we've got the murder of Gen. Walter Krivitsky, in 1941. His death was ruled suicide, but informed opinion agrees that NKVD rigged it to look that way. (Krivitsky died six months after they got to Trotsky, in Mexico.) Then there's Laurence Duggan, who fell out of a 16th-story window in New York in 1948. He had a meeting scheduled with his Soviet control that day. You think to yourself, Okay, but that was Stalin, this isn't the old days, when Yezhov and Beria could conjure up triggermen like dragon's teeth. Then again, who exactly is Vladimir Putin if not a wolf in wolf's clothing?

What we're talking about is the possibility, at least, that Russian state security is fielding hit teams on American soil. In the past, these were proxy killings, and they took place in client states or satellites. Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia. Very seldom, if ever, would you take out the pros on either team, the agent-runners, KGB, CIA, the Brits, the Israelis. You compromised their assets, you sowed discord and misdirection, you put them at cross-purposes, but you didn't knock 'em off like gangland rivals. And we didn't go after targets in the Soviet Union, they didn't come after targets Stateside. That seemed to be the unspoken agreement, anyway. Professional courtesy. Elsewhere was fair game. Berlin, or Vienna. Helsinki, Athens, Istanbul. And the Third World? You couldn't even trust the water.

It all changed in late 2006, with the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. We'd had the killing of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident, in the UK. This was back in 1978, the notorious poisoned pellet in an umbrella tip - Bulgaria's secret service, the DS, borrowed the toxin from KGB, it's thought. Nobody ever made the case, though. Markov was a one-off. (Not exactly. There was another Bulgarian, in Paris, ten days earlier.) Or maybe the DS operation was rogue? (Not that, either. There's good collateral KGB sponsored it.) In the event, the trail went cold. This isn't to say nobody cared about Markov, but it was a story that flared briefly, and petered out. We're talking about Bulgaria, after all. How many people can find it on a map? More to the point, Markov's murder didn't indicate a pattern. It was an anomaly. And then, almost thirty years later, Litvinenko. Another exotic poison, in this instance, polonium. A defector, a known enemy, a slanderer, and a personal insult to Vladimir Putin that the son-of-a-bitch is still walking around.

The issue for the Kremlin seems to be that people like Litvinenko, and the opposition politician Sergei Yushenkov, and the reporter Anna Politkovskaya, just won't shut up. The three of them are now dead, of course. The bone that got stuck in their throat appears to have been Chechnya. Chechen terrorists were blamed for the apartment bombings in Moscow and two other cities in 1999 that gave Putin political cover to jump-start the Second Chechen War. In a fourth city, Ryazan, a team of FSB covert operatives were arrested after planting explosives, and the story went round that all of the apartment bombings were a security service provovcation, a false-flag attack. Then there's the Moscow theater siege in 2002, which people have also suggested was a provocation, and there's the Beslan school hostage massacre in 2004. Three events pinned on Islamic jihadis from the Caucasus, and used to prosecute the war with increasing brutality - scorched earth, in effect - and three events possibly orchestrated or abetted by federal security agencies. The stories aren't going to stop, but they've become whispers and hearsay, their voices have been lost, along with Litvinenko, Yushenkov, and Politkovskaya.

Using state security, or the Mafia, or freelance private contractors, to settle up your debts can be habit-forming. You get a taste for it. And quite possibly, you get bolder, or maybe you just don't care if you leave your handwriting. When you come down to it, what's the point of intimidation, if you don't sign your name?

In his New Yorker piece, Dexter Filkins floats a few possibilities, U.S. targets, ex-pat critics of the Kremlin who wound up in the hospital, or dead. If targeted they were. It's a tough call. Guy gets drunk and chokes on a piece of chicken? Could happen. Guy gets beaten to death in a hotel room? Seems less like a happy accident. What about the guy who had a gun put to his head? Nobody murmured in your ear, "Michael Corleone sends his regards." There's nothing solid to go on. All we can say is, This happened before, and such-and-such didn't. We're left with supposition and suspicion.

Here's a supposition. Putin thinks he can get away with murder because he hasit's that simple. As for the niceties, or the courtesy, well. Chert vozmy. The devil take it. This is somebody who doesn't even have to pretend to courtesy. Still. It presents an uneven risk-benefit ratio. My guess is that it's more about, Who will rid me of this tempestuous priest? In other words, it isn't Putin's express bidding. He doesn't have to put pen to paper, or even raise his voice. Oligarchs and Mafia bosses kiss his ring. The thought is father to the deed.

One other thing. Rules of engagement aside, it seems awfully petty to put so much energy into hunting down a few loudmouths, mostly nuisance value, sticks and stones. You have to take yourself pretty seriously to take them so seriously. Which is I guess the point. We imagine that Power is the great engine, the dynamic that shapes men, and history. What if it's just vanity, or hurt feelings? 

14 June 2017

Michael R. Davidson's THE DOVE


by David Edgerley Gates




1987, the Cold War. Reagan is president, Gorbachev is General Secretary. The Russians are mired in Afghanistan, ground down by attrition, death by inches. What if there's a way to bleed them out faster?

CIA's chief of operations at the Paris station is approached by French security, We have a potential KGB defector, in Moscow, they tell him. But for us it's a Denied Area. We don't have the resources to operate there. You do. Harry Connolly, CIA operations, knows Rule One: There are friendly countries, but no such thing as friendly intelligence services. What do the French want in return?

It turns out the French want the product. They've just been beat out of the biggest arms deal in history by the British, a total of 20 billion pounds sterling, to the Saudis, and the French smell a rat. The defector in Moscow has inside information on the arms sale.

The defector has access to the material because his skill set is technology theft. KGB has a compromised asset inside the Saudi deal, but more to the point, CIA could use the defector's knowledge to map Soviet weaknesses. Where are the gaps, what's on their shopping list, which specific technology problems are they targeting? 

And we're off. Paris to Moscow, Paris to DC. London to Riyadh, London to Geneva. Harry has good tradecraft, and he begins to pull the threads together. Everybody's got a piece, from the fixer for a Saudi Prince, Mohammed Attar, to the British procurement minister James Abbott, to banker and bagman Wafiq al Salah, to the Novosti correspondent Nikolay Kozlov, a KGB spook under journalistic cover, and the hapless defector-in-place Stepan Barsikov, giving classified information to the West because he's defeated at love. The journey crosses personal landscapes as much as physical distance. And interestingly, not everybody learns everything. There are things left hidden, or unspoken.

And the last question, the historical one, about the end of the Soviet Union, did they fall or were they pushed? It's perfectly plausible, as The Dove suggests, that the Russians could be goaded into overreach and overspending. Imperial ambition, with an economy on the edge of collapse, and political hardening of the arteries, the Old Guard unable and unwilling to accept reform, meant the system was on life-support, and ready to collapse of its own weight. They were perched on a narrow ledge. Gravity did the rest. Oh, and maybe just a small thumb on the scale.

https://www.amazon.com/Dove-Michael-R-Davidson/dp/0692877142/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1497302186&sr=1-1&keywords=michael+r+davidson


This is a review I posted on Amazon for The Dove, with the tagline "authentic and thought-provoking." I've got a couple of things to add. They're in the nature of personal observations, what you might call editorial asides.

First off, it's probably obvious I have a weak spot for Cold War spy stories, having written a few myself, and Michael Davidson knows the territory. This is probably the place to note that Davidson is former career CIA.

Second, although I wouldn't presume to call us close friends, Michael and I are Facebook pals, and we've had the occasional private e-mail conversation. Fair disclosure.

Third, it should be said that Michael and I aren't entirely on the same page, politically. I think he's somewhere to the Right of Attila the Hun, he thinks I'm somewhere to the Left of W.E.B. Du Bois. (I'm exaggerating. A little.) The point here, specifically referencing The Dove, is that it's an article of faith among Reagan's admirers that he brought the USSR to its knees by forcing them to spend money they couldn't afford on advanced weapons systems, to keep pace with American technological developments. This isn't unfounded. I'd be likely to give some credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Polish pope, or Lech Walesa, and fissures in the empire - the Causasus, the rise of radical Islam, falling oil prices - but let's be fair.

It's interesting to me that two guys with an intelligence background, Michael's far more extensive than mine, can agree to disagree on a fair number of things, yet not lose sight of certain homely truths. Neither one of us trusts the Russians worth a rat's ass, which is the inner unreconstructed Cold Warrior for you, in full plumage, and we both have an old-fashioned regard for keeping faith, for honorable service, for duty. There are worse things.

25 May 2017

The Paths of Glory...


Graves at Arlington on Memorial Day.JPG
Arlington Cemetery,
Wikipedia
  • "Fear prophets and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them." -Umberto Eco 
  • “The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war's appeal.” Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
Memorial Day is the United States' official holiday to remember all the people who have died serving in our armed forces.  It's also a good day to remember all who have died in war, period.  And not just in the United States.

Now, this may sound strange to you, but one thing I would like to see is happen is the United States reinstate the draft. Personally, I believe EVERYONE should have to serve in the military, men and women alike.  My reasons are many:

(1) When only 1% of the citizenry serve in the military, and all are "volunteer", then the citizenry as a whole seems to be remarkably unconcerned about what wars, "unofficial" wars, etc., we're in.  The Middle East conflicts have seen military personnel - often "part-time" National Guard - serving 3, 4, 5+  tours of duty, and nobody seems to care.  It's someone else's child, someone else's family, and they volunteered.  Let them go where they're told.  Especially since it's somewhere "over there".  I find this unhealthy.

(2) If everyone serves in the military, then maybe certain politicians won't talk patriotism out of one side of their mouth and then yank promised veterans' benefits away with both hands.  And other things...

(3)  If we're going to police the world, then by God I think we should draft everyone, and let everyone in on what it's like to serve.  Training, education, and a greater knowledge of the world around them.  Mark Twain:  “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

(4) Recurring statements from recurring politicians (who do not/ have not/ will not ever serve) that seem to openly want / long for/ plan for war.  Again, going back to #1 - we have to stop taking our military for granted.  We have to recognize that it's real blood that is shed, real lives that are lost, real minds / bodies that are damaged, sometimes irreparably.

(5) The other side of it is that we appear to be developing a certain (small?) percentage of the military that seems to be increasing in disdain, distrust, and dislike for the non-military majority. I've been told that American civilians in general are unfit, immoral, and slothful.  (From the Walrus and the Carpenter: "I deeply sympathize." Sometimes.) As one said to a judge once, "We throw these people over the fence."  The judge replied, "Welcome to the other side of the fence." And this important:  the military is there to defend the BOTH SIDES OF THE FENCE.

Bill O'Reilly at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia (cropped).jpg
Bill O'Reilly - Wikipedia
I do believe that we take war too casually in this country, mainly because (post 1812) our wars have always (with the exception of the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11) been on someone else's soil.  (This includes the "American Indian Wars" which were all fought on what was, at the time, Native American land.)  There is an American tendency to downplay European distaste for war, European steady pursuit for diplomacy, as "liberal", if not downright cowardly. During the buildup to the Iraqi invasion, Richard Perle stated that European nations "do not have the most courageous of instincts," implying that America must intervene in inter-national affairs because Europeans are afraid to.  (Citation on NBC)  Back in December of 2005, Bill O'Reilly said "I understand Europe. They're cowards." He went on to add,
"...by and large, the European population is soft and afraid. ... They won't confront evil on any level. It is anything goes, just leave me alone. Give me my check from the government and leave me alone." (Citation on MMFA)  It's a fairly constant theme on Breitbart as they quote Neil Farage, Geert Wilders, and others among the alt-right.  

But as one response put it, "Europeans are not cowards - It's that we know war."  And they do.  The following is a list of European wars over the last 200 years:

1789-1795 - The French Revolution (the real beginning of the 19th century)
1802-1815 - The Napoleonic Wars (fought both in every country in Europe and around the world - the War of 1812 was a subset of these)
1819 - August 16 - Great Britain - "The Peterloo Massacre"
1820 - Revolts in Spain and Naples.  Crushed.
1825 - Decembrist Revolt in Moscow.  Crushed
1824-1830 - The Greek Revolt v. Ottoman Empire.  Won (because the Congress of Vienna backed it)
1830 - Serbian Revolt v. Ottoman Empire.  Won (because the Congress of Vienna backed it)
1848:  Europe went NUTS in 1848.  Some of the major armed conflicts were:
  • Revolt in France; king flees; Louis Napoleon Bonaparte is elected, then becomes Napoleon III in 1852, & launches a series of imperial wars on the continent...
  • Berlin revolt.  Crushed.
  • Viennese workers & students revolt in Austria.  Crushed.
  • Czechs revolt vs. Austrian Empire.  Crushed.
  • Milan & Venice revolt vs. Austrian Empire.  Crushed.
  • France invades & occupies Rome at the request of the Pope (they stay until 1870)
1849 - Magyars of Hungary revolt vs. Austrian Empire.  Crushed
1853-1856 - Crimean War.  Russia v. Ottoman Empire, France & Britain.
1854 - Spanish Revolution
1859 - Piedmont (Italy) v. Austrian Empire.  France joins Italy and beats Austria.
WWImontage.jpg
WW1 Montage - Wikipedia
1864 - Danish War (Prussia v. Denmark).  Prussia wins.
1866 - Austro-Prussian War (Austrian Empire v. Prussia).  Prussia wins.
1868 - Spanish Revolution (Italian king put on Spanish throne)
1870 - Franco-Prussian War (French lost; Napoleon III deposed)
1871 - Communard revolt in France.  Crushed.
1876-1878 - series of Serbian-Ottoman (Turkish) wars
1899-1902 - Boer War (Great Britain v. South African Boers).  Britain wins.
1905 - Bloody Sunday Massacre in Russia.
1912-1913 - Balkan Wars.  (sort of a preview of WW1)
1914-1918 - World War I ("The war to end all wars"...  but it wasn't).
1936-1939 - Spanish Civil War (a definite preview of WW2)
1939-1945 - World War II

Infobox collage for WWII.PNG
WW2 Montage - Wikipedia
There are reasons to pursue diplomacy when you have seen war on your home soil at least every decade for over 150 years.  There are reasons to want peace and unification when entire generations of young men have been wiped out time and again (see the list above). When cities have been bombed to rubble, and refugees have numbered in the tens of millions (WW2).  There are reasons to try to figure out what acceptable risks are when you have seen an entire continent explode, and 38 million people killed (civilian and military), over the shooting of one man in Sarajevo (WW1).  And to pursue civil accord, liberties, and responsibility when you've seen an entire continent almost drown in darkness, and almost get destroyed by war, after racist fanatics took over a government and then decided it was time to take over the earth (WW2).

Warsaw, post WW2
Wikipedia
And wars don't just end with everyone going home to a wonderful family reunion.  The scars last a long, long, long time. (Trust me on this: I lived in the South for years, and my mother was Southern.  The Civil War has not yet been forgotten and forgiven, on either side, and that was over 150 years ago. And don't even get me going on the Greeks and the Turks:  my grandfather was still furious at the Turkish invasion of Constantinople... Which happened in 1453...)

WW2 left 20 million military dead and 40 million civilian dead, and God only knows how many wounded.  There were also 60 million refugees.  Of those refugees, at least a million still hadn't found homes by 1951. And millions more weren't refugees, but were simply homeless, as whole cities were bombed into rubble, and much of the European industrial infrastructure destroyed.  And this brings up another unpleasant truth:

World War 2 is the reason why the United States became the leader of the free world and sailed into the 1950s on the biggest wave of prosperity we ever saw:  we hadn't been bombed into rubble, we hadn't lost our infrastructure, we didn't have a huge refugee population to resettle.  Our factories were at top production, when there were barely any left running anywhere else on the planet.  For years, we were the sole supplier of almost everything, and we grew very very rich.  That specific kind of economic boom will never happen again, no matter what any politician tells you, and thank God for it:   it was based on the absolute misery of most of the rest of the world.

Sadly, these lessons may have to be relearned, especially if certain parties in Europe and elsewhere have their way.  But maybe they will continue to remember, even if we do not.  They know how bad it can get.  We can only imagine.  Thank God. May it always stay that way.







11 January 2017

MIDNIGHT COP


We all have guilty pleasures we harbor unwavering affection for, in spite of their weaknesses. One of my favorite movies, for example, is RED DAWN - the 1984 release, written and directed by John Milius, not the gratuitous remake. Another is Danny Kaye's sublimely ridiculous THE COURT JESTER, which is quite possibly genius. And further down the list is MIDNIGHT COP, a German noir that gleefully peddles its own exploitive trashiness, but then through some inner alchemy finds transcendence. Not that I pretend to understand how this works, mind. It's flax into gold.

Couple of curiosities about the movie. The original title was KILLING BLUE, a literal translation of the German. When it came out on DVD, somebody in marketing obviously decided that was too enigmatic. And the DVD jacket headlines Morgan Fairchild, along with Michael York and Frank Stallone, which is somewhat misleading. The guy with the most screen time, the star of the picture, is Armin Mueller-Stahl, followed by Julia Kent. But back when, Armin wasn't a known quantity. Julia, a German actress with an Anglicized stage name, wrote the screenplay as well as co-starring. The director is Peter Patzak, with a list of credits going back thirty-five years. Let's just say that MIDNIGHT COP probably isn't a career personal best for any of them.

The plot's full of holes. The movie seems, even, to add up to less than the sum of its parts. The script sets up moments that work by themselves, but don't connect.  The set pieces are well-managed, effectively blocked and shot, and then they evaporate. One thing doesn't lead to another. The character tropes are derivative, and annoying. Why does Armin Mueller-Stahl's cop, Inspector Glass, have to be so dismissive of his newly-assigned partner, because she's a girl? Yeah, the movie was made in 1988, but seriously. This was worn out then. And the whore with the heart of gold, Morgan Fairchild's part. She does okay with it, although it doesn't require Shakespearean chops, and of course Glass can't keep his hands off her, but SHARKY'S MACHINE it ain't. Oh, and lest I forget, it's a running joke that Glass has loose bowels. You get the idea. Too much that amounts to laziness. The real problem is that it's unconvincing.

The most promising relationship, dramatically, is between the two main guys, Armin's cop and Michael York's prosecutor, Karstens. They open the picture together, the two of them a little drunk, playing jazz in their underwear, Glass on trumpet and Karstens on sax, hazy early morning sunlight filtering through the windows, a train going by on the elevated tracks outside. It establishes a comfort zone. We expect it to be subverted, but the plot mechanics require Michael York's character to disintegrate, and by the time we get to the finish line, it's utterly laughable. We don't believe it for a second. (The climactic scene also involves smearing Morgan Fairchild in lard, or maybe Vicks VapoRub, which tells you something.) I think this is a missed opportunity. One of several, yes, but insult to injury. It's a critical failure of nerve. Reversing our expectations is fair enough, playing us false isn't. Aliens might as well have dropped out of the sky.


And yet. What is it that I find so compelling about this movie? Drugs, sex, blackmail. There's a certain sameness to it. It's not all that original. Armin Mueller-Stahl is a big plus. He makes Glass consistently interesting, even if the character isn't written. Doesn't seem like much, damning with faint praise. There's a feel to the picture, though. Shot on location, with four - count 'em, four - cinematographers credited, the visuals are surprisingly consistent. A lot of medium and long shots. Very little moving camera or zoom. Static set-ups, where figures enter and exit the existing frame. When they do use close-ups, it has a claustrophobic effect. But there's nothing flashy or self-conscious about the technique. It doesn't call attention to itself. By and large, interiors are lit bright and hard, so the surfaces are shiny, and exteriors are gauzier, or shot at greater distances. It always seems damp, outside. Fog, rainy streets, wet windshields. I don't remember it raining so much in Berlin. Here's another thing. There isn't a single shot of a landmark in the whole movie. There's no Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie, no Memorial Church or Funkturm or the Wall. They have no bearing on the story. It's all back streets and nightclubs and industrial parks and subway stops, high-rent places off the Ku-damm, working-class neighborhoods like Steglitz. If you were a stranger to the town, you wouldn't know you were in Berlin. You're in on a secret.

I'm guessing that's it, or a big piece. Being in on the secret. Which could mean it's only me, or a select group. Not an elite, just people with a working knowledge of Berlin at a definite point in time. MIDNIGHT COP was made a year before the Wall came down. That makes it an artifact. The last shot of the picture, which lasts three or four minutes behind the closing credits, is a slow pan across the city skyline at dusk, with an aircraft on the horizon, coming in to land at Tempelhof or Tegel. You can perhaps make out the Europa-Center in the distance, the Mercedes logo at the top. It begins with with Armin playing the mouthpiece of his trumpet like a kazoo, and then segues into a tenor sax solo of "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which for the Cold War generation is entirely emblematic of Berlin. I actually get teary watching that sequence. It's transporting, and transformative.  

24 August 2016

Back in the USSR



In the latest news from Lake Woebegone, we have a reshuffle at the top of the ticket - no, not the Trump campaign, but the inner circle of the Kremlin. Sergei Ivanov, the president's chief of staff, one of Putin's senior guys and one of the last holdovers from the good old days in Leningrad, where the two of them made their bones with KGB, just got thrown under the train by his boss.

This didn't use to be that odd an occurrence, of course, usually followed by a trip to the basement of the Lubyanka and a bullet in the back of your head. I think people were actually surprised when Nikita Khrushchev was allowed to retire to his dacha, instead of being disappeared. Milan Kundera has a wonderful aside in LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING (or maybe it's UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS, sorry about that) about a Czech political figure from the Soviet era who gets erased from the history books and from collective memory. He's in a group photograph with some other party hacks, reviewing a parade or whatever, and he's cosmetically removed from the picture, but whoever retouches it leaves the guy's hat visible. So our guy's weightless, not even a shadow, while his orphaned hat floats in the empty air. For the luckless Ivanov, we ain't talking metaphorical, and the job market's tight for his particular skill set. He serviced one client and one client only. Maybe he got too big for his boots, or maybe he kept faith, but whichever it was, he outlived his usefulness.

Back in the day, a cottage industry sprang up in both media and intelligence circles. Kremlin-watching, reading the tea leaves - whose star was rising, whose sinking? This is a science still being practiced with regimes like China's and Iran's, where the workings of government are utterly opaque to outsiders, but Russia these days seems almost transparent by comparison. (Does anybody under the age of sixty remember Malenkov and Bulganin? Does anybody over the age of sixty remember them?) It seems like a throwback to the Cold War to wonder what Sergei Ivanov's political disgrace signifies. I venture there'd be more speculation if it happened on a slow news day, but it seems like a tree falling in the woods with nobody to hear it.

An informed guess? Putin has achieved escape velocity. He doesn't need his old gang, or their street smarts. He's shaking off the past and gathering new recruits. Medvedev is just about the Last Man Standing. He's a year younger than Putin. Ivanov is a dozen years older. Ivanov's successor, his former deputy, is twenty years younger than Putin. Putin has effectively been holding the reins for the past seventeen years, since he took over from Yeltsin - and if not without dissenting voices at the time, those voices have been silenced since. It's all about the chronology. These guys Putin is sidelining, pushed into retirement or promoted to some meaningless sinecure, aren't geriatrics. They're the Establishment, ready for prime time, with every expectation of putting both feet in the trough. All of a sudden their golden parachute has turned into a box of rocks. They've been traded to the minors.

The new kids, like Ivanov's replacement, Anton Vaino, have no power base independent of Putin. And more than that, they've risen in the apparat while Putin's held office. In other words, they have no basis for comparison. So far as they're concerned, Putin is the state. Fairly obviously, this isn't a view Putin discourages. It's also been remarked that some Russians in the older generation are nostalgic for Stalin, or at least for an iron hand, and Putin doesn't discourage this sentiment, either.

I don't think we're talking about a culture of Yes Men, or not entirely. Putin isn't delusional, and his policies - Ukraine and Crimea, in Syria and the Caucasus - aren't being questioned. What's happening is simply that he's eliminating possible challengers. Having secured his position, Putin is now making himself irreplaceable. Nobody's waiting in the wings. It's only policy. When a new king takes the throne, he smothers his close relatives, thinning the herd.

For some reason, I've been slow on the uptake, along with quite a few other people, but I don't know why this should come as any surprise. Everything in Putin's methodology has always been about turning back the clock. He once said that allowing the dissolution of the Soviet Union was one of the great political mistakes of the twentieth century - I think he called it 'historic,' meaning a wrong turn, historically - and his attitude toward the Near Abroad, the former Soviet republics, bears this out. But has he actually decided to raid Stalin's closet and try on some of his old clothes? If the shoe fits, well and good.

The thing is, you're not going to get too many people who don't think Stalin was a psychopath. Vladimir Putin has his fair share of vanity, I'm sure, and he may have an inflated idea of his self-importance, or his place in history, but nobody's suggested he's a fruit loop. Not yet. Calculating, manipulative, and ruthless. Let's face it, those aren't disqualifications. Blood on his hands? Sure. Not to plead any kind of moral equivalency, but he's not the only one.

It's an inexact science, reading the leaves. Probably best left to those of us who don't have a dog in the fight. We could go back and forth about this, and never settle our differences. Let's put it this way. When you eat with the Devil, use a long spoon.