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Not very many Western films were shown in the Eastern satellite countries during the height of the Cold War. East Germans might obtain bootlegged Beatles records but they missed out entirely on the 'decadent' delights of the 1960s, including James Bond movies. Six months after the 1962 release of Dr. No, East Germany's DEFA studios unveiled its own spy saga, complete with a handsome East German master spy. The thriller For Eyes Only - Top Secret is adapted from the exploits of a real double agent in the mid-1950s. A terrific success, it was promoted in the East as fiction based on fact. Only with the fall of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1989 did the full truth come out.
For Eyes Only (Streng geheim) is infused with a propaganda message, as were espionage pictures from all countries during the Cold War. Audiences in the GDR surely enjoyed the adventures of the suave Agent Hansen, even though the violence and sex quotient is far tamer than anything from America or England. We keep expecting Hansen to meet and bed some voluptuous Yankee Jezebel, but he shies away from anything remotely romantic. His one potential romantic partner disappears from the film just things begin to wrap up.
Stasi Agent Hansen (Alfred Müller) regularly sneaks people between the Eastern and Western sectors of the divided Germany. As part of his job as an agent for the GDR he pretends to be a defector to the West. His family thinks him disloyal as well, which means that he cannot see his beloved son in person. Having infiltrated America's MID (Military Intelligence Division), Hansen lives in rooms at the Concordia Trading Company, a front. After attending meetings at which a NATO plan to invade and conquer East Germany is discussed, he immediately sets to finding the original invasion plan documents and smuggling them East. But the MID is concerned about the number of their agents being picked off by the Stasi in Eastern Germany, and is convinced that someone is leaking the inside information. Hansen is tailed, and then brought in for a lie detector test. Hansen distracts his superior Major Collins (Helmut Schrieber) by hooking him up with a girlfriend, and finds time to search the MID's secret headquarters by letting his chauffeur Frantisek (Ivan Palec) use his car, and waiting for the sexy secretary Peggy (Eva-Maria Hagen) to go out on dates with the MID's doctor (John Peet) -- who runs the lie detector machine and helps with interrogations. Hansen must drug people, trap others in elevators and keep a cool head to avoid detection. Things get complicated when it is revealed that a West German Intelligence agent is after the secret invasion plans as well. Hansen's beautiful East German contact sets him up with an escape route, leaving the master spy only 24 hours to locate the secret files and get them past the Allied checkpoint.
For Eyes Only is a nicely assembled thriller that makes a fair stab at a 'cool' attitude by playing Jazz music behind the title graphics. The briskly paced storyline feeds us just enough information to avoid total confusion, which makes us feel accomplished when actions and motivations eventually become clear. Alfred Müller's Agent Hansen looks good but seems to have been constructed by committee. When it comes to a fight, he easily bests any opponent. He betrays not a hint of anxiety as talks his way out of tight spots with the American military brass. Hansen has a sure hand with the ladies, but is only interested in business. He charms a girl at a nightclub and then hands her over to the philandering Major Collins, an incompetent who has found a way to personally profit from his position. When Hansen accidentally gets a peek at a woman in a bra, he reacts as if embarrassed. Agent Hansen is also slightly melancholy about being separated from his son. Someday he will finish his job and rejoin the ranks of good comrades on the 'decent' side of the border.
American fans of spy films will be fascinated by For Eyes Only's reversal of heroes and villains. Western spy entertainment routinely presented Communist foes as sadists and perverts, or simply comic book Enemies of Freedom. The Stasi organization in For Eyes Only is depicted as a noble, humane corps defending the honest workers' state against Western aggression. Hansen's sympathetic bosses rush him to an evening swim meet so he can briefly see his son, if only through a pair of binoculars. The pretty agent who sets up Hansen's escape route clearly admires a man who sacrifices so much in the service of his country. This is definitely not the chilling Stasi depicted in 2006's The Lives of Others.
By contrast, the Americans in MID are conquest-driven militarists concocting a plan of psychological warfare and subversion that will end in an invasion of East Germany via Poland and Czechoslovakia. Most of their German cohorts are ex- SS men. Nobody trusts anybody at The Concordia Trading Company. Sex and gambling appear to be the Americans' weaknesses. Major Collins and Hansen visit a Wild West- themed club that has prostitutes waiting at the tables. The soundtrack plays a Yankee march when we're with the rowdy Americans. The movie stresses the bad example these invaders set for the West Germans. Poor Peggy the receptionist feels compelled to be attractive on dates (she returns to the office to change into a different brassiere -- ??), but flees in tears when the MID's doctor, an ex-Nazi pervert, tries to rape her. Hansen's Czech chauffeur Frantisek is unhappy because the waitress he loves doesn't respond to Hansen's 'fancy' American car, a Plymouth sedan with fins. When guarding the Concordia headquarters Frantisek breaks into Major Collins' bar to get drunk.
Although some of the picture takes place in West Berlin, we never see the then- brand new Berlin Wall. The conclusion has Hansen and Frantisek racing a station wagon through a hail of bullets at a border roadblock. If he can get the invasion plans out, Hansen will prove to the world the depth of American treachery and aggression.
Because it was produced for an East German audience that didn't need explanations for some concepts, viewers might find For Eyes Only difficult to follow at first. The fact that the West Germans and their American allies are spying on each other becomes rather confusing. Director János Veiczi keeps things interesting, even if the story lacks a big action scene or even a final confrontation between Agent Hansen and the MID aggressors and their West German cohorts. In that respect, it's more like a semi-docu espionage picture, than an exaggerated escapist spy romp.
In 2011 Germany's Federal Agency for Civic Education presented an 11-film series called The Celluloid Curtain: Europe's Gold War in Film . More or less unseen for decades, János Veiczi's For Eyes Only was chosen as one of the eleven.
The DEFA/UMASS DVD of For Eyes Only - Top Secret is a very good encoding of a nicely photographed B&W thriller that uses a great many nighttime exterior shots. As a nice touch, the American characters speak English, which is simo-translated in German by a disembodied voiceover. The removable English subtitles translate everything. The film's first act introduces so many characters and new locations that we non-Germans need every clue we can get to know if we're watching GDR agents or MID operatives, in East or West Germany.
The one encoding drawback is that somebody has chosen to re-format the film in 1:78 for widescreen TVs, compromising the original 2:35 Totalscope compositions. A few left-right repositions during shots chatter across the screen, betraying the format alteration. An original trailer included is indeed in 2:35, erasing all doubt.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMASS) makes available vintage East German movies from the DEFA library as entertainment, but also for historical study purposes. Their earlier disc Kuhle Wampe or, Who Owns the World? is an invaluable document of leftist resistance in the Weimar Republic, made just before the rise of the Nazis.
I said above that For Eyes Only was promoted in the East as based on a true story, which it is only up to a certain point. In 1956 an East German double agent in MID by the name of Horst Hesse succeeded in carrying off the contents of two safes containing MID files. But Hesse stole not a blueprint for an imminent invasion, but personnel files that led to the arrest of 137 MID operatives in East Germany.
The extras for For Eyes Only directly address the complicated relationship between the fictional movie and historical truth. Horst Hesse's story is touched upon in a brief 1956 newsreel, and he's interviewed for a longer 1975 piece. Hesse says he didn't realize at the time that he had smuggled an important invasion plan into the GDR. Fifteen years later when the Berlin Wall fell and the truth came out, Hesse was equally surprised to discover that his mission had been used to float a complete falsehood.
The disc comes with three educational DVD-R files. A Teaching Guide outlines the story and its characters much like a Cliff's Notes document, and analyzes the film's political context from a non-partisan viewpoint. It even reprints the front pages of two German newspapers, East and West, with their conflicting reports of Hesse's mission. Berndt Stöver's essay The Truth, The Absolute Truth: Liberation Policy and DEFA's For Eyes Only examines the movie's role in the much larger GDR strategy to counter the West's initiative to dissolve the Soviet bloc. The essay links the film's fictional attack plan with NATO contingency plans later discovered by the Stasi. It also covers the film's successful release as a "contemporary political film." Previously the GDR had forbidden movies about its spy activities, the existence of which was not open for discussion. The word "spy" was not used. The word "scout" was substituted, as in "scouting the West."
In Our Own James Bond Hiltrud Schulz interviews Dieter Wolf, a drama consultant on For Eyes Only. He explains that a number of reshoots were ordered to recast actors playing Stasi personnel as more intellectual. After explaining several other ways in which DEFA served as an instrument of the GDR's propaganda machine, Wolf ends his candid interview by complaining that the studio is now remembered mainly as -- an instrument of the GDR's propaganda machine.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
For Eyes Only - Top Secret rates:
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