István Szabó’s Colonel Redl is the sturdy, compelling middle film of a Middle-European trilogy—falling after Mephisto and before Hanussen. In some ways, it is also a middling one, Cannes Jury Prize notwithstanding. The rise and fall of Redl, an officer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, can look very like a frame for some fine period dress, woven with all the requisite tasseled swords, excruciating society balls, court intrigues and conflicted loyalties. Too, the struggle of a man and the rotting system he loves, playing out between Redl and the Empire, has been treated more interestingly elsewhere (not least by Szabó himself)—there’s none of The Conformist’s bitter, beautiful satire here. Plenty of psychology, though: Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Redl—devoutly loyal and ambitious, until he isn’t—is a tragic wonder to behold. The perfect by-product of the Austro-Hungarian machine, Redl begins to slide toward the crashing, jagged gears as the machine wears down and begins to self-destruct, and over Brandauer’s narrowed eyes and set jaw settles a mask of desperation and rage. How could this have happened?
Easy. Take a poor, very gifted Ukranian boy, put him in a prestigious military academy, inundate him with tales of the Emperor’s largesse, and introduce him to a beloved classmate’s aristocratic family—and the boy, dazzled and determined, becomes an intense, ascetic officer, repressing all that would interfere with his service to the Empire (ethnicity, family, and sexuality). Of course, we know how this ends—with dissolution and war—but Redl only learns as he lives, and the condition of a man whose gods turn out either senile or corrupt is unenviable—though terribly engaging to watch.