OK, admit it? The prospect of two-and-a-quarter hours of humourless Hungarian war drama isn't exactly one that will have you slavering with excitement.

But Colonel Redl is an unmissable masterpiece. Based loosely on a true story, it won the Best Foreign Language Film BAFTA and was nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar and Golden Globe, plus the top award at Cannes. Its failure to win is up there with the Best Picture Oscar going to Shakespeare In Love over Life Is Beautiful.

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The film follows Alfred Redl (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a young soldier in the Imperial Austrian Army during the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The poverty stricken lad is exceptionally dedicated and loyal and is quickly promoted to head of the intelligence agency, rooting out traitors and spies within the ranks. But he is soon to fall from grace spectacularly, with truly tragic consequences.

Istvan Szabo's film is based on the story of the real Alfred Redl, who pioneered numerous intelligence techniques and spied on the Russians, before joining their payroll and indulging in counter espionage, after being blackmailed over his homosexuality. He let slip numerous military secrets and is thought to have given away one of Austria's principal attack plans before eventually his deceit catches up with him.

Szabo's Redl is a much more sympathetic character than his real life counterpart and his story is not purely a sensational one of betrayal, sex, spies and suicide. Treason is transformed from an overwhelming web of deceit into a single moment of weakness. But treason is not what concerns Szabo. He focuses on Redl's identity crisis and how his quest to be something he is not leads to his downfall. He is part Ukrainian, part Hungarian, part Jew and part Catholic. The Ukrainian and Jewish roots are quickly hidden, as they are not what society respects, while his homosexuality is another aspect of social exclusion.

At the heart of Redl's personality is his gratitude to the Emperor for helping his family out of poverty. This unwavering loyalty helps him rise through the ranks, even though it means turning against his comrades and friends. If he could change this part of his character, he would collaborate with the usurpers, as they seem more likely to succeed, and so inevitable is doomed because he cannot change.

Brandauer's performance is compelling and enigmatic. His range is exhaustive and the subtlest emotions are laid bare on his expressive face. The viewer feels every moment of joy, fear and heartache and his emotive portrayal helps the audience empathise with this self-loathing protagonist.

Colonel Redl is an unmissable work of genius, a tale of moral corruption, deceit and ultimate heartache.

Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2006
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An ambitious young army officer rises to the top of the military, but politics and blackmail make his world come crashing down.
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Director: István Szabó

Writer: Peter Dobai, Istvan Szabo, based on the play A Patriot For Me by John Osborne

Starring: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Hans Christian Blech, Armin Mueller Stahl, Gudrun Landgrebe, Jan Niklas, Laszlo Galffi

Year: 1985

Runtime: 144 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Hungary, Austria, West Germany


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