Perhaps the most interesting thing about Colonel Redl, the second film of director István Szabó’s trilogy about 20th-century Central Europe, is that it demonstrates some of the consequences of telling a story centered on an unattractive character. Redl (Klaus Maria Brandauer) was one of the most notorious traitors in European history who sold Austro-Hungarian military secrets to the Russians, with disastrous consequences when World War I broke out. The film does not deny Redl’s guilt, but Szabó has chosen to show him not as the self-indulgent sybarite he apparently was, but as an idealist who betrays his country only after he realizes that he is the only one who gives a damn about it.
Is it possible to make an audience care about a snooping, ruthless cop hoist on his own petard? Szabó skirts that question by depicting Redl as a self-hating victim of a system to which he is slavishly devoted, but which is ready to dispose of him as soon as necessary. He resorts to treason only when his personal world is collapsing around him. Redl’s betrayal is shown as a single action that occurs when he gives into his homosexuality in despair, not as a habit born of the love of luxury and social distinction. Instead of being blackmailed, he deliberately gives away military secrets without profiting from the action in a literal acte gratuit. Even more dubiously, he is not maneuvered into the betrayal by the Russians, but by the machinations of the heir presumptive, Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Armin Mueller-Stahl).
Imagine attributing Benedict Arnold’s treason to a principled opposition to slavery for a sense of the distortions involved. In order to make it possible for the spectator to “identify” with the protagonist for well over two hours, Redl has to be cleaned up quite a bit. In blaming the political and social conditions of a rotting society for his behavior, the film throws a light on the dark underbelly of fin-de-siècle Vienna, but it also nearly exonerates a disreputable character in the name of telling a good story.
That effort to make an unimaginative wretch sympathetic inadvertently raises the issue of how any film shapes the characters and actions in the name of entertainment. Ironically, this very literary, narrative- and character-centered film raises a fundamental formal question. Just how much distortion is acceptable to produce the pleasure of watching a story unfold? It is unlikely that Szabó intended to expose the corrupting power of narrative, but by making Redl the worm into Redl the distraught victim played by a major star, he takes poetic license a touch far. Certainly, Szabó gives the audience the wet handkerchiefs they’ve come to expect. It is the ethical validity of those expectations and the questionable audience-artist relationships to result from them that is the real issue. That all are willing participants does not make the lie true, just mutually opportunistic.