Katschekistan, 2017. A landrover is driving through the mountains, and is stopped at an improvised checkpoint. The driver says that he’s a doctor on an emergency call, but the people on the checkpoint are armed, and they want to look in the vehicle. As they discover his passenger in the back, he tries to drive through the checkpoint. The windscreen is riddled with bullets. Cut to: opening credits and music in the style of a 1970s cop show.
A meeting of the BND, the German secret service. There’s a conference in Bonn this week to announce the uniting of East and West Katschekistan, but they’ve lost all contact with the putative president, who was being escorted by Frank Kern, one of their handlers. As old photos of Kern in Katschekistan are beamed on the wall, someone notices a figure in the background. Isn’t that Jochen Falk, the East German spy?
Cut to an ageing man getting his deposit back from a beer bottle. As he is approached by security agents, he slips off. Running across a bridge he spies a train running below. He readies himself to jump onto the roof of the train. As he starts to mount the side of the bridge, he falters. His ageing bones won’t allow him do this sort of thing any more.
Falk (for of course it is he) is “invited” to the BND headquarters and told that he is the only person who can save the initially unnamed agent. It is only when he learns that it’s Kern, his old nemesis, that he starts to get interested. But only if he can bring the old team together. So, he approaches Jäcky, the technical expert still bemoaning the fall of the DDR and Locke who’s only really in it for the money. They would have invited others, but at least one is now an MP for the right-wing CSU.
Falk, Jäcky and Locke fly to Katschekistan, accompanied by Paula, a BND agent who also happens to be Kern’s daughter. Once there, they bump into Harry, once a smooth James Bond-type agent, now an ageing lothario and night club singer. As he puts on a smart suit and gets ready to woo more ladies, it splits at the arm. Like the others, Harry is not quite what he used to be,
Remember a while back, when all the Hollywood action stars realised that they could no longer star in jumpy-crashy films with any dignity, so started making films of ageing spies on one last adventure? Most of those films were terrible, weren’t they? And by rights, Kundschafter des Friedens should be no better – certainly the plot carries very few surprizes.
Yet somehow, this manages to be thoroughly entertaining from start to end. This is partly down to Henry Hübchen as the charming Falk. It is also down to a keen sense of the unresolved resentments of post-unified Germany. The ex-DDR spies are convinced that they were much better than their Western counterparts and refuse to use any methods or gadgets that smack of capitalist modernity. Sometimes they’re right.
I think that it is this that raises the film above those which think that showing Bruce Willis in a vest and Sylvester Stallone with his top off is intrinsically funny because old people are hilarious aren’t they? Yes there are a few jokes about the relative infirmity of the ex-spies, but the real joke is not that they have got weaker, but that the world has moved on. When Falk and Paula play good cop bad cop, it becomes quickly clear that she’s the one more capable of ruthless violence.
There is some nostalgic respect for Western films as they used to be. The soundtrack and deliberate overuse of split screens takes us back to an era when things were simpler, and directors didn’t have to go looking for an impenetrable plot. The presence of Paula helps burst the bubble of some old-time sexism, though it must be acknowledged that there are barely enough women with speaking roles to qualify for the Bechdel Test.
The East Germans are also treated with respect and affection. Their nostalgia for the good old days – particularly Jäcky’s – is not because they want to return to Stasi repression but that they used to work in the name of socialism – they had something to believe in. Life in the united Germany has not all been for the better – and maybe the Katschekis should not celebrate too soon.
It was apt, then, that this 2017 film was shown on Reunification week-end, to show the lighter side of the Cold War. We don’t learn anything profound, but sometimes you just want to go to the cinema to enjoy yourself. If that’s the case, there are much worse films to see than this one. Plus you get to see whatever happened to Jürgen Prochnow after Das Boot.