When the USSR was officially dissolved at the end of 1991, a Cold War that had existed between the true and just United States and the Evil Communists since the end of the Second World War. For cinema fans, this gave us all sorts of brilliant films from North By Northwest, through Dr. Strangelove and all of the James Bond films from Sean Connery through Timothy Dalton. More recently, there has been a run of great pieces coming out of Europe that look back on the Cold War years and the extreme (the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others) or the legacies they leave for (the comic brilliance of Goodbye Lenin!). Joining this canon is the French film Farewell, from director Christian Carion (Joyeux Noël).
As it turns out, the French had far more to do with the downfall of the Soviets than we had previously realised. Apparently “based on a true story” (a line that can always be used liberally), the film follows the events surrounding the disenchanted Soviet General Colonel Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica) and the effects of his trading Soviet secrets with a French engineer working in Moscow. His codename was Farewell. The secrets trade-off begins an international event that has massive consequences for both men, and according to the publicity for the film, helped bring about the end of the Cold War.
At times Farewell is heavy-handed attempt to slap down the arrogance of the United States and any past ‘special relationships’ the French may have had with the Lords of Democracy, painting the French in an almost innocent light. Indeed, throughout most of the film we are expected to believe that the French amateur spy is above suspicion simply because he is disobeying all the traditional rules of spyhood (spydom?) and acting in plain sight. Although never as hard-hitting or emotionally engaging as the intimate portrait that excellent The Lives of Others painted, the film attempts to bring the human face behind the Iron Curtain to light. However, this is equally obvious, with unnecessary elements of an affair and a Queen-obsessed son back in Russia that don’t come anywhere near to the level of intimacy observed in that Oscar-winning German film.
Farewell is a cold film about the Cold War, with vast white landscapes isolating us physically from gaining any real insight into this period. We do know one thing though: the French are masters of duplicity.
Top 5 Cold War Films
- The Lives of Others (2006): This superior film takes us back to East Germany in 1984. An agent conducting surveillance on a journalist and his wife becomes increasingly involved in their lives. Winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Academy Awards, and the equivalent of the BAFTAs and a number of other ceremonies. Deservedly so, as this taut thriller turned in some terrific performances from Ulrich Mühe.
- North By Northwest (1959): It is difficult to do any list of spy thrillers without including Hitchcock’s Cold War thriller, unsurpassed to this day. Hapless New York advertising executive (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a spy and chased across the country. Memorable scenes involving a crop-duster and Mount Rushmore will live on in film history forever. Hitchcock’s later Cold Ward piece, Topaz (1969), was a late-career disappointment.
- Dr. Strangelove (1964): Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. As the extended title would imply, this takes a satirical jab at the Cold War antics which were at their height in the 1960s. Peter Sellers outdoes himself as the titular Dr. Strangelove, desperately trying to keep a Nazi salute under wraps, President Merklin Muffley and the timid Group Captain Lionel Mandrake. An insane general tries to start a war that everyone in the War Room is trying to stop. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room”.
- Dr. No (1962): Just about any James Bond film up until the end of the 1980s could easily be included on here, with the exception of Moonraker of course, and From Russia with Love is an obvious choice too. The scene in which Ursula Andress (as the first wacky-named Bond Girl Honeychile ‘Honey’ Ryder) emerges from the ocean has been imitated countless times, not least of which was a gender-reversed tribute in the Bond reboot Casino Royale (2006). Before Bond had countless and increasingly ridiculous gadgets, this was a straightforward and sexy spy story that started a series which now numbers 22 films!
- Goodbye Lenin (2003): Devoted son (Daniel Brühl) must convince his politically active mother, who slipped into a coma prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the Eastern Bloc is still going strong and nothing has changed. Hiding the proliferation of Western commercialisation from someone leads to great comic moments, but is also incredibly touching as well.