Franz has just boarded a plane to Addis Ababa. As he puts his hand luggage and coat in the overhead locker, an official looking man taps him on the shoulder. Could he please leave the flight and accompany the official man? But what about his bag and coat? No need to worry about them, they’ll be taken care of.
It turns out that Franz has been chosen to succeed his old professor. Although he’s only just graduated, his results were so great that they’ve chosen to take him on. There’s only one little thing. Before he takes up the post, they need him to do a little job for the mother country. Welcome to the DDR.
Franz and his girlfriend Corina move into a luxury apartment, which means that is just as gloomy as other apartments and has the same brown furniture, but has a lot more rooms. It even has a record player. This is not necessarily an accurate depiction of DDR apartments in the 1980s, but it does help to set a certain mood.
At first the authorities look at Franz with a certain amount of suspicion. Can they allow someone who’s not married to leave the country? (a problem that’s solved by him marrying Corina). And then there’s the question of his father… Yet he’s also clearly a talented man, a little too moral perhaps, but one who could be of use to the mother country.
Franz’s little job includes Horst Lanfgfeld, a footballer who has just defected – that is to say, he’s just signed for Hamburger SV. Together with a colleague, they get a female spy to sleep with a team mate so that they can photograph and blackmail him. Then they falsify doctors’ letters which say that Langfeld’s wife has cancer. Still later they send messages from his wife.
Franz gets increasingly disillusioned with his job and tries to warn Langfeld what’s happening, unrolling his toilet roll and writing a message. When Langfeld’s bloody body is found in the bath, Franz turns to drink and his relationship with Corina becomes somewhat strained. Eventually he decides to defect to the West, but on the night before he is due to defect, he is caught.
Spy films come from a range of political viewpoints, but pretty much all of them make the same assumptions. The first is that “our” spies are on the side of good and “theirs” are evil. Our spies – from Bond to Smiley to Harry Palmer – may quarrel with their bosses, but that’s because the bosses are old-fashioned and not as good as spying as the new generation. The idea that spying may be bad is never questioned – at least when our guys are doing it.
On the other hand, “their” spies are either vassals of an oppressive system or have been forced into spying because it’s the only way that their mother will get that life saving operation. A few of them really do come into conflict with their bosses, but this is not a conflict of methods used but of fundamental values. The idea that spying for “their” side could be correct is just as unthinkable that “our” side might be the bad guys.
I am no apologist for the DDR, but the fact that pretty much every post-war spy film is shown through this prism means that they all have a slight air of propaganda. I have East German friends who hate The Lives of Others, not because they want to deny the existence of the Stasi, or to justify it’s crimes, but because for decades they have been subjected to a barrage of films which imply that the Western spy system was somehow a benevolent alternative.
Nahschuss is based on the real life case of Werner Tesja, who the DDR sentenced to death in 1981. Most of the hype that I’ve read about it is that this is the film about the death penalty, even though this is fairly incidental to the film itself. And, like any film that is “based on a true story”, you’re never really sure how much is real, and how much made up.
Notwithstanding any misgivings I may have of the genre, it’s going to take more than a single film to change a pattern like this. Nahschuss is a film of it’s type, and it is a very good example of this type of film. It is full of foreboding, and you feel Franz’s increasing sense of entrapment in a situation that he thought he could handle.