Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

What would it be like if a Swede made a classic British spy movie? Well, we found out.

One of the things I liked most about this version of Tinker, Tailor… was that it was a visually convincing portrayal of Britain. The cinema is always in the business of constructing a mythic past or present, and in the UK, there are basically four historical eras in the eyes of the movies. One is Will Shakespeare and before, the age when everything was brown except the crown jewels and the sword blades. Another runs from the deer parks of the 18th century to the 1930s and basically celebrates everything posh. It’s the world of Mary Poppins and a million takes on Jane Eyre. Then there’s Blitz Grim, which runs from the outbreak of war through to the miners’ strike or thereabouts as if the bombs had never stopped falling. And then there’s Shiny World, which picks up in the late Thatcher era and runs through to now.

The problem with this is that the UK is the only European country where the post-war consensus is depicted as looking like shit. I suspect that class is behind this; the people who weren’t rolling in prosperity and unrivalled possibility in those years were exactly the old-fashioned upper middle class that gave us someone like Control as played by John Hurt, a pseudo-academic spook in a studiedly tatty silk near-kimono. He doesn’t dress like that because he’s poor, after all, but because he can. Smiley and his colleagues are much the same, marinating in cod-Oxbridge shabby-library kitsch in chilly flats in Hampstead, plunging into Highgate Ponds, dressing in expensive-but-fashionless tailoring.

But Tomas Alfredson shows early 1970s London as a city with tatty look-and-feel but fleets of brand-new cars (hey! it was the golden era of the British sports car! nobody feels existentially crushed by decline and runs out to buy a MGB roadster!), ruled by a government with uncared-for buildings but a more than generous budget for the technology of spookery and bureaucracy. This suggests he may have read a book or two before starting out. In fact, the intelligence world’s budget is nothing as to Alfredson’s budget for sets – the enormous, hugely detailed archives and secure conference centre are amazingly impressive, and permit him to put the audience in the point of view of a highly classified file making its way through the system.

Of course, London is always like that. There is a long history of new arrivals writing about the noise! and the smog! and the prices! and how do they live like that! and then, in their next letter home, declaring that all their friends had better hurry up as it might not last. These days, Smiley might have moved his skunk-works mole hunt into a Regus serviced-office block in Shoreditch rather than a rotten railway hotel around the old Broad Street station. The paranoia would have to float through the air conditioning in the spirit of J.G. Ballard rather than give the walls uncanny life in that of M.R. James. But it wouldn’t be all that different.

Neither would the politics, in some ways. One reading of the plot is that the loyal British spies and the pro-Soviet moles are in a sort of unconscious conspiracy. The original scheme is to get information from a Hungarian defector that will induce the Americans to share more intelligence with the British. But the moles, who are deliberately providing the British with information to get them to keep the defector case running, also hope that the Americans will be impressed enough to share, so they can get their hands on whatever they do share. After all, the British are deliberately passing information back to the Hungarians to protect the agent’s cover. In what way, then, are their aims actually opposed? The distinction between loyalty and betrayal is a question of the terms-of-trade.

Interestingly, we now know that while John Le Carré/David Cornwell was writing the book, the whole issue had blown up and the Americans had cut off signals intelligence sharing with the UK over prime minister Edward Heath’s refusal to let SR71 reconnaissance flights over the battles of the Yom Kippur war land at the British base in Cyprus. Specifically, Heath and his foreign minister Alec Douglas-Home were concerned that the Americans would pass the information to the Israelis, forcing the UK to take sides in the conflict. The Americans refused to give this assurance and the landing rights were refused, and the US flew the missions anyway using dozens of air-to-air refuelling tankers. As it happened, the Israelis weren’t being entirely honest with the Americans in exchange for the use of the photos, and the Americans were severely embarrassed, leading them to patch up the row with the UK quickly once it was all over.

So the British and the Russians (including the Hungarians) are willing to go to any lengths in order to influence the Americans. The other big target is of course the British Government, specifically the Treasury and SIS’s parent ministry, the Foreign Office. Ironically, the moles are as keen as the loyal to fight the good bureaucratic fight, and both sides want to do so by scoring off the Americans. If anything they mistrust the mainline civil service even more than they do Karla. There is a brilliant moment when the suspected mole, Alleline, spits at a senior civil servant that “None of your civil servants lost their lives!” – in Britain, the intelligence and diplomatic services are technically “crown servants”, without the independent professional status or final access to the highest peaks of power reserved for the civil service proper.

There are other things that haven’t changed much. Gary Oldman’s diction was so perfectly establishmentarian that I missed the first reference to what sounded like “Pseare” but was of course SERE, the survival, evasion, resistance to interrogation, and escape training course that Donald Rumsfeld’s agents re-purposed to create a wholesale torture capability after 2001.

Some other points…who didn’t love the government minister, very much the motorway-building go-ahead bulldozer of the Heathite Tory imagination, who plays a vigorous bout of squash in his Fred Perrys and immediately afterwards sparks up a gasper? It was also hard to avoid thinking that it was the Cold War that made Britain European, a time of civil service linguists and the BBC World Service. And finally, this is a slow movie, as slow as paranoia, well likened to the Godfather. Time stacks up, thickens, intensifies.

like loyal, faithful dogs

I don’t find it particularly surprising that some of the people freed by police after allegedly being kept as slaves at a travellers site say that they wanted to be there. For one, thing, that doesn’t tell you anything about what would have happened if they had tried to leave and been caught.

And there are a whole number of reasons why people picked up from soup kitchens and homeless shelters being kept as slaves might have found their situation preferable to the one they were in before. They had regular accommodation, no matter how squalid. They were wanted, if only for forced labour. As the local MP pointed out, they will have worked out there where everybody could see the condition they were in – and nobody apparently thought that worth remarking on. They had a reliable, if reliably inadequate, food. Perhaps some of them were made into pets, or even given a kind of kapo status. They had regular company. Above all, people can be treated much worse than they were allegedly treated and still behave like loyal, faithful dogs. Rebelling against your condition, as the people who escaped and complained to the police did, is entirely natural. So is accepting it. Neither acts determine what your actual condition was in the first place.

And it should hardly be so surprising that people accept the idea they have to work in order to receive the means of basic sustenance when this notion forms a large part of government policy on unemployment.

The country of humor is … Germany!

As an economics blogger, I am not an expert on international humor, but today’s sad news got me thinking. Germans insist – mostly unsuccessfully – that “German humor” is not the least bit oxymoronic, the rest of the world just doesn’t seem to understand it. Which is why the prejudice will probably live on.

One of the most German of all humorists, Vicco von Bülow (”Loriot”), passed away on Monday at the age of 87. Explaining what Loriot meant to German humor and culture is difficult (see above). He was probably to German humor what Monty Python was to the British. His sometimes absurd drawings and stories of twisted everyday situations were a provocation at first, but have strongly influenced the way Germans have continued to develop their humor – in comedies, but also in literature and film. “This is just like in Loriot” is almost a standard expression in German, describing an everyday situation that turns to become so absurd that it is just hilarious.

An example from Loriot’s work: a couple on a romantic date. He, slightly older and played by Loriot himself, starts a short, somewhat serious but also romantic monologue. The only problem: he has a small piece of a noodle from the last dish stuck on his face. The woman cannot concentrate on anything but the noodle on his face. He, somewhat annoyed by her distraction, tries to remove the noodle but then sticks it to some other part of his face. The noodle therefore travels around his face while he tries to get into a serious relationship talk with a completely distracted girlfriend.

Another example is the almost wordless clip “The picture is crooked”, where an older gentleman (again: Loriot himself) waiting in a hotel room for a business meeting, in his attempt to correct a slightly crooked picture on the wall, destroys the whole hotel room.

The most absurd, yet very German, example is probably “Gentlemen in the bath tub“. Two men meet for the first time in one man’s bath tub, and discuss various aspects of taking a bath, when to let in water, at what temperature, when to put a small duck into the bath tub etc. It is mostly a struggle for authority where both keep a formal distance (“Herr Dr. Klöbner!”) while sitting naked in a mostly empty bath tub.

There are a few ingredients to German humor of the Loriot type: you need an audience that knows and has witnessed too many times before how people take themselves and their procedures and rules a little too seriously. In other words, they need to be German. What is more, you need a twisted everyday situation that turns absurd in a very subtle manner and in a way that does not offend your audience. And you need to put in hard work. Loriot did not consider himself particularly funny (although he was the most modest person I have ever seen). For him, humor was simply hard work: carefully observing German everyday life, constructing these situations in a small play, working out the details with the actors (for instance with the brilliant Evelyn Hamann), and thereby making it absurd in the Loriot type of way.

To be sure, not all Germans like Loriot. But his work is a perfect example of two aspects of German humor: it exists, and it is very hard to export (something that Tyler Cowen pointed out a while ago). Therefore, being German is perfect if you are a humorous person: On the one hand, you (more or less) understand and appreciate US, British and also other European humor to some extent. On the other hand, and mainly thanks to Loriot, you have access to a very special source of German absurdity humor. When it comes to humor, Germany might actually be the best-supplied country in the world.

Flight of Fancy

If there are, famously and waggishly, only two places in France — Paris and the provinces — what of other European countries? In the common imagination, the literary tradition, in culture as a whole, and of course for a fanciful exercise like this, in gross stereotype. For the UK, which I do not know very well, maybe there’s London, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Germany seems much trickier to me, perhaps because I do know it well. Berlin of course, and Bavaria, and then? German Suburbia? In the case of Germany, The Past, and specifically that part of the past from 1933 to 1945, looms largest in the world’s imagination. But I am not sure whether that fits with this scheme. Russia, fittingly, has more: Moscow, St Petersburg, the Caucasus, Siberia, the Gulag, the Provincial City, the Rural Provinces and maybe the Far East. Smaller countries, I will rashly opine, waver between one and two: the Capital City and Everywhere Else or just the Capital. What do you think?

Let Our Fame Be Great by Oliver Bullough

Review in brief: Encounters between Russia and the peoples of the Northern Caucasus have not been happy ones, and have generally ended badly for the smaller nations involved. From the Nogai driven into the Black Sea in the 1700s to the Circassians mostly slaughtered or removed to the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s to the Chechens, who fought for 30 years in the 1800s, were deported en masse to Central Asia in 1944 and subjected to two wars since 1994, the overall picture is bleak. The individual stories are full of spirit and life, and Bullough goes to great lengths to find people and paints deft portraits. He’s a better reporter than analyst, but overall Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus is a splendid book.

It’s Azerbaijan

Winning Eurovision 2011. Apparently the AFOE crew was too sober to liveblog the festivities. In any event, one member of the collective has already observed, “That’ll put off any war over Nagorno-Karabakh for at least a year.”

Eurovision previously at the Fistful:

2009 Slightly depressing follow-up relevant to this year’s winners.
2007 Bonus 2007

Thoughts? Or is Eurovision simply beyond thought?

Surely There Is Nothing “Funny” About What Is Going On In Japan?

As Japanese officials continue to toil away in what we all hope will be a successful bid to avert a worst case scenario nuclear meltdown even while thousands of Japanese still remain missing and unaccounted for, financial market participants across the globe have been struggling with themselves to answer one and the same question: just how serious are the economic consequences of all this devastation likely to be? Continue reading