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9.9.2011

Rendezvous with a Spy

At the beginning we see the sea, a submarine, a lot of strenuous work - a mysterious man flies into Poland in a hot-air balloon. Upon landing he coldly kills the first witness to his arrival. However the Polish security services have already noted his infiltration and set their best agents after him, and so the chase begins. The spy goes his own way, his pursuers get ever close because the clever military intelligence know how to make use of the most modern technology...

Still from the movie "Rendezvous with a Spy". (© Filmoteka Narodow)


Rendezvous with a Spy / Spotkanie ze szpiegiem is a straightforward Cold War spy story: a black-and-white struggle between today and yesterday, between good and evil. It's clear from the outset that good will triumph. But, given the way this film is constructed, we're left guessing how this end will in fact be achieved. The nub of the problem is this: the political and moral stance that the film takes is quite unambiguous, but its actual quality as a film is much harder to assess. There are times when it´s embarrassingly crude, others where it's very stylish; at several points it's pure trash, then it redeems itself with some fine passages of high suspense. So we're not in any way talking here about a conventionally 'good' film. Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight we can see more clearly the context in which this film was made and gain more insight into why it was made the way it was, something that would have been impossible for the Polish film-goer back in the 1960s. And, of course, it's precisely this kind of perspective that makes cinema history so fascinating.

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About the Movie

Rendezvous with a Spy

Original Title: Spotkanie ze szpiegiem
Poland 1964, 105 min., subtitles

Director: Jan Batory
Cast: Ignacy Machowski, Beata Tyszkiewicz, Stanislaw Mikulski et al.
A submarine surfaces off Poland's Baltic coast; a man disembarks, then uses a hot-air balloon to fly into Polish territory. He lands in thick woodland and buries the equipment that he will need for his escape when the mission is over. As he does this, he's being watched by an obviously harmless and slow-witted forest worker, who, as an unwanted witness, is immediately and unceremoniously killed. Although the spy's submarine has been detected by the Security Services, who have despatched a search party to track him down, he nonetheless manages to make it to the Polish capital, Warsaw. The city is a network of go-betweens of both sexes, of traitors to socialism, all just waiting for the chance to make contact with him: in modern parlance, it's a nest of 'sleepers'. Coded radio messages are broadcast, dead letter boxes set up, secret meetings arranged and information is gathered about military installations. At times, it's not clear exactly what is being spied on and to what exact end; but what is obvious is that the espionage is directed against the creation of a socialist state in Poland and against its intrinsic values of peaceful co-existence and compassion. And we know from the opening moments of the film, that the spy will ruthlessly murder people without a second thought. After some confusing to-ing and fro-ing, the action culminates in a long car chase, during which several people are killed. However, the villain is finally captured and brought to book, to get the punishment he deserves.

The structure of the film is simple: from the very beginning, there's a series of 'parallel images'... here the enemy, there the defenders of the state. Before the spy (whose name is Bernard) even appears off the Baltic coast, there's a scene with frontier guards dutifully patrolling the beach. Although this is apparently just a minor detail, it's nonetheless an important one, because it reminds the cinema audience that the 'organs of the state' are always on the watch for threats to its existence. They don't merely react to such threats as and when they appear, they´re always ready to take the initiative, to be proactive. Prevention is their priority. Bernard is cunning, professional and above all, cold-blooded; so he makes his way relatively quickly to Warsaw, to the heart of socialist Poland. But, from the moment he penetrated the border, he's been 'on the radar' of the counter-espionage forces. Their machines hum smoothly in their hi-tech headquarters: direction-finders and radar installations allow operatives to pass on brisk commands and to put a rapid stop to his 'foul trade'. That he isn't hunted down even more quickly, is solely due to the good-natured innocence of ordinary Polish citizens, unused as they are to the brutal methods he employs.

The dramatic impact of the events in the film, the slip-ups and the obstacles, which get in the way of his speedy capture, are all extremely important: without the tension they create, the conflict would be too quickly resolved, and the film would lack an essential action and reaction. So a relatively large part of the storyline focuses on secondary characters, on conspirators and investigators and on their interactions. Only in the final third of the film do these disparate storylines come together: the hostile secret agent and his government pursuers finally meet. The confrontation is played out in a long and tense car chase; and in the final showdown Bernard is trapped and arrested.

Rendezvous with a Spy was filmed in collaboration with the Polish National Military Academy and the Ministries of Defence and of the Interior. As a result, the film is not so much an adventure film about espionage, it is a military-political polemic, written with first-hand knowledge of all that was involved. And we should not forget that, after 1945, Poland was to a large extent a 'synthetic', and hence a fragile, construct. Following the Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, Poland was, in effect, moved several hundred kilometres to the west; and millions of people were likewise pushed westwards from the former German provinces of Pomerania and Silesia to be forcibly resettled in what became the separate states of West and East Germany. Even after the wartime Polish Government-in-Exile was driven out of power in the mid-40s and the Russian puppet régime, led by Bolesław Bierut had been installed, scattered units of the anti-communist "Armia Krajowa" (Homeland Army) continued their resistance activity and held out well into the 1950s. For Poles, this was an experience tantamount to civil war: and it was the startling if ambivalent theme of Andrzej Wajda´s film Ashes and Diamonds / Popioł i Diament (1958). On the other hand, after Stalin's death in March 1953, Polish society gradually underwent a political and cultural awakening. In 1956, as Bolesław Bierut, the Stalinist Prime Minister, was listening to Nikita Krushchev's celebrated secret speech (denouncing Stalin) at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, he suffered a fatal heart attack. In the Autumn of that year, Władysław Gomułka emerged as the new First Secretary of the Polish communist party: in the post-war era, Gomułka had been the architect of the communist takeover in Poland and later the victim of a purge that saw him expelled from the party and imprisoned. But he now set about an extensive programme of reform and liberalisation, and this development was reflected particularly in the cinema. The "Polish New Wave" became the talk of the cinematic world, with directors like Wajda, his acolyte Roman Polanski, and many others such as Jerzy Skolimowski, Andrzej Munk and Wojciech Has at the forefront. So, from both the aesthetic as well as the thematic point of view, Rendezvous with a Spy is a distinct anachronism in the way it clings doggedly to the old party-political line.

Jan Batory (1921-1981) first made his name as a fine director of action movies and children's films; he was apparently without any particular artistic or political ambitions. Perhaps the best one can say of him is that he was a professional at his trade, an opportunist who did what he was asked to the best of his ability. In 1955, for example, he made Mountains on Fire / Podhale w Ogniu, an adventure story about the 17th-century peasants' revolt in the Podhale Mountains; Karino (1976) is a children's film about girls and their horses, whilst The Scent of a Dog's Coat / Zapach Psiej Sierści (1981) is about a gang of drug-dealing criminals on the Black Sea. His most durable film before Rendezvous with a Spy was the surreal fairy tale The Two Children Who Stole the Moon / O dwóch takich, co ukradli księżyc (1962), which starred the 12-year old Kaczinski twins, Lech and Jarosław, who later became much more famous as President and Prime Minister respectively of post-Communist Poland.

In casting Rendezvous with a Spy, Batory relied on a number of tried and tested popular actors of the period, who in turn could draw on an extensive fan base. The role of the anti-hero of the title is taken by Ignacy Machowski (1920-2001), a well-known theatre and TV actor, who appeared in more than 50 films, amongst them Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds. He was also in the cast of the East German film The Silent Star / Der Schweigende Stern (DEFA, 1960).

His contact in Warsaw is the beautiful Beata Tyszkiewicz (born 1938), who starred in countless Polish film and TV dramas, amongst the best being Andrzej Wajda's Everything´s for Sale/ Wszystko na sprzedaż (1968), Wojciech Has' The Saragossa Manuscript / Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie (1964), and Juliusz Machulski's Sex Mission / Seksmisja (1984). She also made a number of films for Siegfried Kühn in East Germany, including The Elective Affinities (also known as Kindred by Choice, Die Wahlverwandtschaften, DEFA, 1974).

But the real star of this film is Stanisław Mikulski (born 1929), who is best known in his home country (as well as to former East German TV viewers) as Captain Hans Kloss in the TV series Playing for High Stakes / Stawka większa niż życie. There's a curious point about his part, that of the spymaster Baczny: Batory has him killed by the spy, Bernard, in the final car chase. Up to this moment, he's been cast as Bernard's opponent, his nemesis, so his death before he's even able to carry out the arrest of the villain goes against all the rules of the spy-film. And the manner of his going doesn't make much dramatic sense either. We see his car crash down a hillside into a valley. Flames engulf the wreck, but contrary to what we would expect in such a situation, he doesn't clamber out of the burning wreckage. For him, the hunt is over, and the spy is captured by another, hitherto unknown, security official.

So Rendezvous with a Spy is in no way a forgotten masterpiece; it's not a "missing link" of film history, it's no cinematic fifth column, surreptitiously sneaking subversive ideas into the socialist mainstream of Polish culture under the guise of a conventional spy story. But, as in the case of many other similar films, there are exciting subtexts and contexts, which have crept almost unintentionally into an otherwise rather average piece of work. But it's perhaps only today, many years later, that we are able to see this. Batory made a conscious decision to shoot much of the film on location. He also uses a number of interesting locations as backdrops for key scenes, such as parts of war-damaged Warsaw still under reconstruction, for example, the cluster of ruins around the then recently erected, and notorious, Stalinist Palace of Culture; and he features rural scenes in charming, old-fashioned villages. There are also some fascinating shots of queues outside food shops and of crowded snack-bars.

It's very important for us today, as we look back over socialist realist cinema, to assess not just the acknowledged masterpieces, but also the pot-boilers and sometimes even the really bad films, as these are by far the majority. They mirror at several levels long-neglected aspects of contemporary social life; and their inclusion in our historical analysis of that life can only help us to understand it better. This series of films that makes up "The Celluloid Curtain" is an important contribution to that understanding.
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Claus Löser

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