“I’ve got the impression you make enemies easily.”
A great deal of mystery still surrounds the life of Colonel Redl (Klaus Maria Brandauer), the head of counter-intelligence in the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the aging emperor. The historical drama Colonel Redl directed by Istvan Szabo is one possible version of the events surrounding the mystery. When the film begins, Alfred Redl is a small boy of Ukrainian peasant extraction, and his family is ‘honoured’ by the emperor’s acceptance of little Redl into a strict military school. This ensures Redl’s eventual career as a military officer in the Empire, and Redl’s hellish life at school is eased by his close relationship to Kristof Kubinyi (Jan Niklas), a boy from a noble family.
The lower class Redl sticks out like a sore thumb at the school–but he has his uses, and he’s manipulated into being an informer on several occasions. Interestingly enough, the officers at the school select him for this role because as a Ukrainian peasant, he’s an outsider, but it’s Redl’s strict, twisted moral code that makes him comply. Redl has little time, interest or patience for his fellow officers’ predilection for drunken debauchery. It’s clear to the viewer–unfortunately not to Redl, however, that his strict disciplinarian approach is part of his thwarted sexuality.
Redl rises quickly in the ranks–due mainly to patronage from Colonel von Roden (Hans Christian Blech) who admires Redl’s strict approach and unquestioning loyalty to the Empire. But whereas Redl would prefer to concentrate on his military strategy skills, von Roden steers Redl’s career into bureaucratic roles. Redl is eventually promoted and placed in charge of a remote garrison near the Russian border. Unfortunately, his inflexible approach alienates him from the men and leads to a breach with Kubinyi–for whom Redl harbours a secret, repressed passion.
The Crown Prince (Armin Mueller-Stahl) recognizes Redl’s meteoric career, and creates a web of intrigue and espionage that ostensibly will return honour and discipline to the decaying, predominately noble officer class of this corrupt militaristic society. The film’s themes–class conflict and blind loyalty are subtly woven into Redl’s story, and he remains an outsider, striving always to impress. The filmmaker stresses that this is a work of fiction, and certainly the cinematic details of Redl’s life do not match the official history.
The two heavyweight actors–Armin Mueller-Stahl and Klaus Maria Brandauer deliver impeccable performances. The film’s breathtaking cinematography–snow-covered landscapes, horses racing through the forests, and the ballrooms of the wealthy elite–captures the glories of the fading, decadent Habsburg Empire just before its inevitable collapse and destruction. DVD extras include interviews with director Istvan Szabo and Klaus Maria Brandauer. In Hungarian with English subtitles.