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9.9.2011

Truth and Fiction: Spy Films and Political Reality

Fiction is not burdened with the need to respect historical or journalistic demands to report events exactly as they happened: fiction, therefore, is better suited to discussing secrecy, explaining how it works, without ever either having to, or even wanting to, reveal those secrets.

The British production "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" counts as one of the high points of the spy film genre. (© The Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive)


The Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie in the American Sector, some time two years after the Wall was built (in 1961). The border is closely watched by nervous frontier guards on both sides; a dimly lit no-man´s-land lies between them. Alec Leamas, the British agent played by Richard Burton, tensely awaits his East German agent: his cover has been blown and he needs to escape across the border to the West; he's using false papers. He walks along the border, a white line gleaming in the grey evening light, and peers across.


This Cold War flashpoint has surely never been more brilliantly depicted than by director Martin Ritt in the opening sequence of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), the film version of the John le Carré novel of two years earlier. Everything in this gloomy story revolves around the border: it's where the story begins and ends. Leamas himself tries to cross over in the final scene: he runs across the death strip, leaps onto the Wall, and in the closing moments, is picked up by a searchlight, shot and killed.

The spy and the frontier: these are the two set piece themes that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold so neatly turns into an allegory of the whole spying-game of the Cold War. And deep within it lies a complex labyrinth of intrigue and infiltration between the opposing security services; a sacked secret agent, who contrives his own downfall, in order to get the other side to recruit him; and almost as a sideline, a low-key love affair, which eventually turns out to be the decisive factor. The symbolic location of this story is the border strip, with its control towers, its barbed wire and its sentries with orders to shoot-to-kill; a border strip, moreover, where global enemies collide. A highly-secure border, at a time when the politics of a divided world mean a Manichaean concept of good-and-evil; a time when the two halves of the world face each other across the razor-wire – two totally hostile social and cultural entities.

On 'our' side of the border, we watch events from the safety of our own soil, as Alec Leamas does from inside the American checkpoint; we gather our impressions, interpret them and draw our conclusions: this is all in a day's work for the security man in his own land. But on the frontier, in the death zone, a few metres either way, the right or wrong papers, a password, a command shouted out from a watch-tower, a hole cut in the barbed wire, any of these can mean the difference between life and death. Again and again the spy crosses this border, and every successful crossing is to a greater or lesser degree a violation of that border. For the Cold War is not just a territorial divide, it is a knowledge divide. The spy violates that divide every time he collects forbidden, highly dangerous information and carries it from one side to the other. What on 'our' side in our hands is purely functional knowledge – the whereabouts of military installations or the plans for a nuclear power station – in the enemy's hands becomes a weapon, a strategic advantage, which can mean the difference between victory and defeat. This is why every violation of the knowledge divide by a spy is so dramatic and so threatening. The spy is a channel for state secrets to be spirited across the legal, geographical, institutional and human barriers that we set up to keep our secret knowledge secret. The spy is uniquely the individual who both confirms and calls into question the political order of the Cold War, the division of the world into East and West, Communism and Capitalism. Only the spy can see both sides – if he survives; only he can see what really lies behind the mask of ignorance. This is the sombre conclusion of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. What Leamas finally realises is that the most evil enemy of the West, the East German spymaster Mundt, is in fact an agent of the West. He recognises that in spite of the much-quoted differences between the two systems – 'economic freedom' versus 'economic planning', or viewed from the other side, 'consumer terror' versus 'social justice' – the two sides use the same methods: morally, there's nothing to choose between them.

The complex plot that unfolds in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold utterly fascinated cinema-goers: this was, after all, the coldest of cold phases of the Cold War. Instead of shallow gentleman spies like James Bond, people had a story, which in spite of some absurd plot twists, pulled no punches about the bleak world of espionage: it painted an uncannily sharp portrait of a profession which was less about protecting freedom or world security but more about cruel, underhand games of deception, in which neither side eventually wins. Le Carré's vision of the desolate landscape inhabited by the spy was based on first-hand experience: he was stationed for a year in Bonn (then the West German capital), as a member of the British foreign intelligence service, MI6. His story was written from the perspective of the insider.

This is in no way to suggest that his novels are simple exposés or the memoirs of a disillusioned former spy: le Carré was writing neither history nor autobiography. He is a novelist through and through, even though his books, in particular Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, are inspired by real events, such as the case of Kim Philby, the Soviet mole, who burrowed long and deep into the British secret service and was only unmasked in 1963. What interests le Carré is not precise historical detail but much more the logic of a political situation, in this case, the logic of a Cold War that was above all a secret war, waged not with weaponry but with treachery, infiltration, deception, betrayal and blackmail. Le Carré poses the question, how does a mole blend into his social milieu? Why does no-one detect any of his secret activities? What kind of society is it that allows a man like Philby to pursue his career without ever suspecting that he's working for the enemy? How is he finally tracked down? And what impact do the security services have on the life and personality of the people who work for them?

These questions, and the stories that illustrate and answer them, make le Carré's novels models of how politics can best be illuminated through fiction. Fiction does not claim – as historians or journalists do – that it can give us the one true version of an historical event. This makes it by far the best way of discussing secrecy and how it's defined, without ever actually revealing a secret – or even wanting to. Good fiction, whether in print or on film, is neither pure entertainment nor straight invention; on the contrary, it is a means of examining possible interpretations of an event without falling into the trap of suggesting it can reveal the ultimate truth about the complex political machinations and secret transactions which constitute that even more secret domain behind the frontiers of our knowledge. Fiction analyses secrets; it can investigate their texture, precisely because it does not seek to destroy their arcane logic, their obscure economy of light and dark, overt and covert, but to reconstruct it. Fiction, if you will, sits on the fence and looks both ways. And not least, fiction does not get caught in the raft of constraints which necessarily surround state secrets, whether it be the vow of silence imposed on insiders, or the need to classify certain information. As a former security service employee, le Carré would never have been allowed to discuss his own experiences – but writing books was not forbidden, and he was able to incorporate what he´d learnt at that time into his stories. Fictional narrative can take the central mystery and unravel it and shed light on it, without ever solving it. Only when we read novels like this can we understand how knowledge and ignorance, truth and lies, are inextricably bound together. This is why political thrillers are often better at penetrating the shadowy world of secrecy: they can offer clues, identify problems and provide answers to unanswered questions, questions which might never be posed openly.

Fiction ultimately uses one of the oldest tricks of the spy trade: camouflage. The truth expressed in spy stories is innocuously camouflaged with the famous disclaimer: "all the events portrayed here are fictional. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental."
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Eva Horn

About the author

Eva Horn

Eva Horn, b. 1965 in Frankfurt am Main. Since 2009 Professor of Modern German Literature, Institute for German Studies, University of Vienna. Research specialisms are, amongst others: literature and political theory, military history, the concept and media portrayal of enmity, political secrecy and conspiracy in the 20th century.


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