Inside Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession With Russia
In this excerpt from “Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession With Russia,” author Ian Scott examines the movies’ recent bout of Russophobia, including J. Law’s ‘Red Sparrow.’
In Red Sparrow, Francis Lawrence’s 2018 adaptation of the Jason Matthews novel, Charlotte Rampling’s Matron reminds her Russian Intelligence Service (SVR) protégés in training, including former ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence), that the Cold War is alive and well. It is an entreaty that Hollywood movies took increasingly to heart in the course of the 2010s. In addition to reviving traditional Cold War narratives, movies and television were busy initiating a whole set of new storylines about infiltration and subterfuge, typified by Matthews’ book and Lawrence’s cinematic realization. This restoration was predicated upon a wider 21st-century reevaluation of the old East/ West rivalries, conceived out of the mass technological extension of spying and surveillance that had allowed for a perpetuation of observation well beyond the confines of the previous Cold War. That surveillance and infiltration were made alarmingly real by revelations about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the capabilities of Russian hackers especially for wider online systems meddling. And the result of that election produced the wildly quixotic relationship between celebrity businessman turned president Donald Trump and arguably the most dominant leader of Russia since the days of Leonid Brezhnev, Vladimir Putin.
Red Sparrow is a movie that hints at these contemporary geopolitical intri- cacies—the book even includes Putin in its storyline—not least through a plot that is willfully convoluted at times. Dominika, a former ballet dancer trained in the ways of kompromat (compromising or damaging information about an individual), is sent on a mission that involves locating a mole inside the Russian secret service and where she ends up as a double agent—in the pay of CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton)—playing both sides against each other. If the film’s narrative conceits reflect on contemporary Russian and American détente, its aesthetic presentation is more neatly locked into traditional Cold War imagery. Russia remains a typically gray, regimented society full of decaying housing blocks and regressive everyday clothing, a place where long crane shots follow lonely vehicles making their way to rural, secretive training schools designed in the Palladian style. Even the classified material that Dominika acquires from the Americans while secretly working for them is in the form of floppy disks rather than anything as sophisticated as a memory stick.
And while the film’s soundtrack shies away from the use of Russian composers as diegetic accompaniment to these visual regressions, the adoption of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, as well as incidental music composed by James Newton Howard that gives a nod to Mozart and Stravinsky, connects the tone of the movie with a professed and serious Russian classicism. The film bends toward grand nationalist traditions where the preservation of high culture is woven into the fabric of the nation’s being.
Red Sparrow’s Cold War is therefore neatly inverted between 21st-century superpower suspicions and old-style visual and aural signifiers. And it’s not alone, as this essay argues. From Checkpoint Charlie to Hansa Studios, from Red Square to Gorky Park, from the Friedrichstrasse to Berlin Station, Cold War aesthetics became part of a historical reappropriation of time and place in movies and TV of the 2010s. But this exercise in reminiscence is also a cultural outlier signaling the re-emergence of Cold War–era Russian-American relations once thought consigned to history that are escalating again toward mistrust and accusation. That at least is one reading of Putin-led Russia, one that had clear enough antagonisms directed at the Bush and Obama administrations. One that had a clear schematic associated with it then, until the moment Donald Trump arrived on the U.S. political scene.
This essay traces the history of the movie aesthetic that has grown up around the fraught relationship Russia has had with the West. It also accounts for the ways in which 2010s movie culture explicated the Cold War revival, first via iconic homage and associative locations, most especially in Tomas Alfredson’s updating of John le Carré’s classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), and then through an intricate profusion of style and influence aggregated around up-to-date concerns and relations, in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (2017). In a new Cold War era where traditional bipolar rules of engagement no longer seem to apply, the aesthetic convergence of a host of signifiers in Leitch’s movie points toward this bewildering state of East/West relations, as well as political culture more generally, in the Trump/Putin world where things are not what they seem. Acute aesthetic sensibilities are nothing new in Cold War thrillers of course.
Visual convergences were a mainstay of the genre in the United States, Britain, and further afield for over forty years. Some were more attentive than others to the visual dynamics that historical setting and events offered, but the recognition of symbol and metaphor occurred almost immediately at the point at which Cold War politics and culture took a grip after 1945. That hold was apparent in cinematic uses of certain central European locations—Vienna, Budapest—as well as postwar London; but its real gravitational force occurred at the centripetal point of Cold War collisions, Berlin, and never really left.
Soon after the end of the war, for example, there emerged the so-called Berlin rubble films, including documentaries such as Germany, Year Zero as well as noir-ish spectacles like A Foreign Affair and Berlin Express (all 1948), each accentuating personal grief and national loss marked by the profusion of debris across the shattered city. From The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) to Funeral in Berlin (1966), and from The Man Between (1953) to Torn Curtain (1966) and A Dandy in Aspic (1968), a bipolar conveyance of mood and atmosphere—in films that offered the divided city as a fulcrum for such feelings—was sometimes as important as plot and political verisimilitude. In Tony Shaw’s words, “Berlin was the prominent symbol of the Cold War and the divided nature of Europe.”
This locational influence in “classic” Cold War cinema is no better realized than in Carol Reed’s The Man Between from 1953. As Rob White observes, Reed was one of the “great directors of the city-experience,” able to locate his protagonists among urban landscapes where they were both hunter and hunted. Operating climatically as a place of “evidence and surveillance,” the city is the ultimate hiding place and the loneliest prison, as Reed masterfully displays with his rendering of postwar Vienna in his tour de force, The Third Man (1949).
That White gleefully reports that nothing came of Oliver Stone’s attempts to update that story to modern Berlin back in the 1990s does nothing to dispel the pervasive power of the Cold War imagery that Reed gave such vent to. The affinity of Stone and other directors of his generation toward the verisimilitude of Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker’s display of Cold War chiaroscuro was clearly felt, driven as Reed’s cinema was by European cities literally subdivided through power, politics, and ideology.
In The Man Between, Susanne Mallinson (Claire Bloom) visits her brother, a military doctor in Berlin treating victims of war and its aftermath at the end of the 1940s. Martin (Geoffrey Toone) is married to a German, Bettina (Hildegard Knef), and their house affords a view across the bombed-out wasteland toward the pitted and discolored Brandenburg Gate, which marks the border between the Allied and Russian sectors. Bettina agrees to show Susanne around the city, including a trip to the Eastern side, already strewn with propaganda posters of Lenin and Stalin. Here they meet Ivo Kern (James Mason), a shady character of no discernible abode in either the East or the West. Bettina’s relationship to him—they were previously married—only seeps through gradually, while Susanne falls for the charming yet illusive Ivo, with disastrous consequences when she is mistakenly kidnapped.
While their relationship forms the bond that crosses the divides of the city, the film’s (non)handling of increasingly complex motivations and maneuvers infecting Berlin as the Cold War hardens—the elite of Berlin society contrasted against the disenfranchised and disowned is repeatedly seen but never considered—has been an enduring criticism of a production that was persistently marred by problems.
In addition, the actions of the Western powers on one side of Berlin’s divide—who are intent on “rescuing” people from the East’s increasing repression—set against the trigger-happy communist forces on the other, become a simplified cat-and-mouse chase at the climax amid newly constructed offices and houses. While Kern turns out to be a human trafficker shuffling people from the Eastern to the Western sectors, like Harry Lime before him, he is anything but a predictable cipher for the ethics that swirl round the city’s legitimate as well as illegal activities.
Regardless of the film’s wider sociopolitical dilemmas, critics were united on its foundational visual language, the location shooting of which helped perpetuate what the director took to be the city’s pervasively “jittery feeling.” The rubble takes on an aesthetic of its own, one that would soon dissipate as Berlin continued its reconstruction. And yet Reed’s film seems to capture an enduring permanence to the devastation—in wintry scenes full of snow, the mounds of dirt and detritus convey an almost brutalist immovability—that is as illusory as the thousand-year Reich but as real as the battle of ideological wills going on in the streets adjacent to the gate, symbol of a global descent into capitalist and communist division.
Reed’s film oozed magnetic manipulation of people battling for survival then, and showed a city in hock to an ideological war it couldn’t stop from happening. Filmed in black and white and on a shoestring budget, the picture helped define the real and metaphorically desolate landscape the Cold War was creating. So it’s instructive that some twelve years later, Martin Ritt’s adaptation of up-and-coming novelist John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold should also be in black and white. Ritt’s direction further reinforced the cancerous dogma of separation spreading through Reed’s picture and solidified le Carré’s dictum that the Cold War had by now become a “condition of human illness.” Le Carré’s world, in this only his third novel, gravitates toward Douglas McNaughton’s description of spies and spying as a quotidian affair, bound up in bureaucracy, a world where ambivalent morals and even more hesitant motivations abound. The film, released two years after the publication of the book, employs Richard Burton’s laconic style to create the cynical MI6 Berlin station chief Alec Leamas. Leamas is a spy who’s gotten lost in the tangled idealistic configuration of the world he’s trying to promote or save—he no longer seems to know which. With the action beginning in London soon after Leamas has been brought “in from cold,” the Berlin he is eventually thrust back into—masquerading as a disaffected double agent—is one of familiarly austere tension and dissonance. His attitude to the task is offset by his scorn about the whole “Circus,” a reference to the controlling office in London but also a play on the intelligence histrionics characteristic of the Cold War in the early 1960s.
As Stephen J. Whitfield underlines, while the East is aesthetically “bleak and drab”—an echo of its reactionary social policies—the West as represented by Leamas has a “spiritual hollowness and nagging conscience” eating away at it. Whitfield identifies this pessimistic equivalency between competing systems as a challenge to the real political and intelligence establishment of the time, who felt threatened by the popularity of such films, which were seen to be undermining the “ideological intensity” of the conflict at hand.
Shaw reinforces the point in Hollywood’s Cold War. The history of American cinema’s documentation of the Soviet-American clashes of the postwar era tells of a conflict fought more often than not within the realms of propaganda. Movies were indexically linked into battles for supremacy by virtue of their cultural projection of a set of mandated values and ideals designed to vanquish communist foes and conspiratorial plots. Indeed Shaw suggests that while propaganda relayed through film has conventionally been viewed as an adjunct to the more serious planks of Cold War rivalry—politics, economics, military superiority—the evidence points in fact to “propaganda and ideology [going] hand in hand, reinforcing one another” in a psychological battle for hearts and minds.
Along with this belief in culture’s more direct role in the Cold War conflict as histories of artistic production from both the West and the East have surfaced is, however, the intrinsic acceptance that cinema was engaged in a fight to document the “real”—that is to say, politically messy—Cold War. From a British cinematic perspective, there is no better example of this than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with its morally ambivalent, adversative characters of dubious persuasion—even on the same side—and refusal to neatly tie up narrative strands for redemptive, goodly reason. Here were history, people, conflicts, and events polished within a cinematic frame so as to reflect starkly upon real ideological battlegrounds and on authentic philosophical and psychological deconstructions of capitalist and communist mentalities.
By way of contrast, Shaw emphasizes how a series of paradigmatic movies around the same time defined Hollywood’s Cold War contribution in a somewhat different vein, notably On the Beach (1959) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). And through genres like science fiction and even biblical epics, as much as through storylines of assailants on the trail of spies or subversives from behind the Iron Curtain, the American cinematic mise-en-scène instead privileged the ideological necessities and melodramatic certainties behind communist aggression. But the iconographic touchstones representing the Cold War remained similar on both sides of the Atlantic and indeed became locked in place by the 1970s. Like Berlin, “Cold War Eastern Europe had a stable cultural identity [by] the time of [the BBC’s production of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy],” a follow-up to the Leamas story from le Carré, who by now had become the master of the opaque espionage thriller. The semiotic core of the series, like this genre of fiction, had begun to revolve around shorthand optics like checkpoints, watchtowers, Trabant cars, pine forests, and urban wastelands. For McNaughton, “these liminal boundary sites reflected the Cold War’s border crossings and moral ambiguities.” This place discourse could be traced back to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and might be termed the apogee of “the Iron Curtain discursive unconscious.” But then the wall fell and the Cold War concluded.
Excerpt from “Berlin and the Remapping of Cold War Movie Aesthetics” by Ian Scott in Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia edited by Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad (University Press of Mississippi, 2020). Reproduced with permission of University Press of Mississippi. All rights reserved.