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Skvorets i Lira still
The film 'Skvorets i Lira' comes to the festival with an interesting backstoryImage: Mosfilm

Spies unveiled

May 31, 2011

Forbidden cinema returns to the city that inspired it: In Berlin, the 'Celluloid Curtain' retrospective aims to shed light on the Cold War era through rare espionage films from the East.


"The Celluloid Curtain: Europe's Cold War in Film" – which runs through June 22 at Berlin's Zeughaus Kino – is dedicated to espionage cinema, a genre wildly popular in the 1960s on both sides of the divided continent.

The festival is the brainchild of Claudia Amthor-Croft of the Goethe Institute's London chapter. She wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Berlin Wall with a fresh approach that focuses on the countries of the former Eastern bloc. The festival showcases rare and previously unseen spy films that were made behind the Iron Curtain.

Guillaume Affair: a government-changing scandal

"This is the first ever presentation of spy films from the Cold War era, which were the main feature of this period," Amthor-Croft told Deutsche Welle. "None of the Eastern European films have ever been shown before in the West."

Curators Nikolaj Nikitin and Oliver Baumgarten spent two years scouring archives across Europe in a quest for rare spy films. Their most exciting discovery was no doubt "Skvorets i Lira," ("Starling and Lyre,") a Russian picture made in 1974 that was doomed never to grace the silver screen.

Still from film 'Rendez-vous with a spy'
'Rendez-vous with a spy' was made in Poland in 1964Image: Filmoteka Narodowa

Now, however, "Skvoretz i Lira" is coming in from the cold. The movie, about a pair of spies who infiltrate West German business circles, was released in 1974 - just as a major espionage scandal rocked West Germany. In April of that year, the West German police burst into the offices of Chancellor Willy Brandt and arrested Günter Guillaume, Brandt's closest political aide, who was uncovered as a spy for the East German secret police, the Stasi.

Less than two weeks later, Brandt gravely addressed the nation and stepped down as chancellor. His administration had been plunged into a politically explosive scandal following the revelation that it had known for more than a year that Guillaume had been on the Stasi's payroll.

Shortly thereafter, deep behind the Iron Curtain, an aging Soviet film star was fighting with an iconic director over the release of "Skvorets i Lira." Despite the prominent profile of Stalin's favorite director, Grigori Aleksandrov, and his superstar leading lady, Lyubov Orlova, the film was never screened outside of the Soviet Union.

The two events were not unrelated.

The truth behind the banned film

Rumors have long been circulating about why the film was banned for so many years, says curator Nikitin. At the time of the ban, it was widely believed that Orlova - who at the age of 70 had been cast to play a character in her 20s - had objected to the film's release, complaining that she looked too old for the part. But Nikitin says his research tells a very different story.

According to the curators, the film's stark ideological message, along with the plot's unnerving resemblance to the events surrounding the Guillaume affair, went too far for the politically sensitive times. "It wasn't the right time for it, it's a harsh film that stood out from the general context," said Baumgarten.

From 1969 onwards, Brandt's chancellorship had followed a course of Ostpolitik which strived for a relaxation of East-West and German-German relations. At the time of its planned release, then, "Skvorets i Lira" was off-message, presenting Soviet Russia as a benevolent peace-loving superpower pitted against "the bad Germans and the worse Americans plotting to replay the Second World War against the Russians," said Nikitin. "The authorities were worried that such a film would endanger the new atmosphere of détente."

Film still, 'A bomb was stolen'
Romania also produced East-West spy subjects, such as 1961's 'A bomb was stolen'Image: Arhiva Nationala de Filme

Also, a film showing the deployment of deep undercover Communist spies in Western society proved awkward for authorities in both the East and the West after the scandal. Nikitin believes the main reason "Skvorets i Lira" was taken out of cinemas in the Soviet Union and only shown once on Russian television following the Perestroika relaxation of censorship, was to avoid putting emphasis on the Guillaume affair.

Starring: Berlin

"The whole film was based on East German deep spying techniques, on a spy getting very close to someone important in West Germany,” Nikitin said. “Guillaume did the same thing; he went very deep undercover and was very close to Brandt."

The Celluloid Curtain festival will also screen rare films from Romania, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, alongside a selection of Western European titles more familiar to Western audiences. Following a very successful run in London, organizers are enthusiastic about the Berlin screenings, especially because of the city's pivotal role in the Cold War and in the films themselves.

Six of the 11 films contain sequences set in the city, which in the 1960s was the axis of the international spy trade. It is often said that during this time, every second adult in Berlin was in some way connected to clandestine operations.

"In many of the films, the city is like an extra character," said Baumgarten. "After the Berlin Wall went up, it became the undisputed center of Cold War espionage operations."

The Celluloid Curtain film retrospective runs from June 1 –22 at the Zeughaus Kino, Berlin.

Author: Josie Le Blond
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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