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Colonel Redl
cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Jan Niklas, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Hans Christian Blech, Gudrun Landgrebe

director: Istvan Szabo

136 minutes (15) 1984
widescreen ratio 16:9
inD DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
This BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated film sees Hungarian director Istvan Szabo reunited with Austrian powerhouse actor Klaus Maria Brandauer in a tale of nationalism, ambition, homosexuality and politics in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Based on a play by John Osborne (the writer of Look Back In Anger), Colonel Redl's director hobbles the film by choosing to coyly skirt around the point of the film rather than boldly confront the themes of homosexuality and social climbing.

The film tells the story of a young boy who is selected to go to a military academy despite his poor origins as a working-class Hungarian of Jewish origin. Quickly making friends with the son of a baron and impressing the school's director with his patriotism by preferring to celebrate the Emperor's birthday to returning home for his own father's funeral, Redl rises quickly through the ranks until he finds himself stationed on the Russian border. However, it becomes quickly apparent that his nationalism and moral Puritanism serve only to alienate Redl from his fellow officers and in trying to compensate for his lower origins with excessive zeal he only manages to make an enemy out of the man who used to be his best friend. Promoted again, this time to the general staff to be the head of Austrian military intelligence, the colonel naively blunders into the intrigues of the Archduke Ferdinand who might well be trying to start what would later come to be known as World War I

Brandauer gives a nuanced and intense performance as a child who grows up to be an unhappy man. Tormented by his low origins, his ethnicity and his sexuality, Redl only ever finds comfort in his love for the Emperor and his secret crush on the Baron who was his best friend growing up. Despite his obsession with projecting an image of being the perfect soldier, Redl is ultimately brought down by the very traits that he sought so hard to hide, namely his poor social position that makes him a target for the Archduke and his homosexuality that makes him a target for foreign spies.

With such an intelligently drawn character, a talented actor and a richly controversial subject matter, Colonel Redl seems to have everything necessary to make a great film. However, the film is ultimately undermined by a mismatch between source material eager to mire itself in the gritty underbelly of Austrian military homosexuality and a director who sticks stubbornly to a neo-realist agenda devoted to presenting Redl in as realistic a fashion as possible. The problem is that a commitment to realism also means a commitment to portraying a society that resolutely refuses to display any emotion. So, aside from hints at widespread homosexuality amid the officer class of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a scene where Redl is kissed by a fellow officer, the only real indications that Redl is gay is that he was abused as a child (the idea that you can be turned gay through molestation being about as unfashionable an idea as you can get). As a result we never see Redl really struggling with his homosexuality or ever having to choose between his career and his freedom. Given that the original play featured a drag ball and was so shocking that it was censored, it seems unlikely that this shyness extends to the source material.

Indeed, rather than focussing entirely upon Redl's sexuality as the play clearly does, Szabo seems intent on playing with the idea of a head of military intelligence who is ultimately the victim of his own secrets. Beautifully made and nicely acted, you can't help but feel that Colonel Redl is lacking in depth as the director steadfastly refuses to look beyond the military manners to what might really be going on in Redl's head. The result is a film that fails to live up to its own promise and which is too subtle for its own good.
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