Overthinking Atomic Blonde

I don’t often write film reviews, but I went to see the film Atomic Blonde recently and came out of it with mixed feelings. In the end, I decided I was overthinking it all, I should just enjoy the style over substance. But it got me wondering how black people feel when they see another film about the American Civil War or slavery, or how Muslims feel when they see a film about terrorists, or Germans when they watch the triumphalist war films that get shown again and again and again on British TV. I’d like to see a Cold War spy thriller from the Russian or East European perspective. Although totalitarianism was undeniable in those countries, there was genuine fear of the West as well…

First, here are the good things about the film:

  1. Charlize Theron is smart, beautiful, utterly fearless and independent, strong but not superhuman, nuanced psychologically (for an action film) and has a wardrobe to die for. (Fits in with the comic book origin of the story, but I’m not sure anyone in the 1980s dressed that well). She absolutely rocks the Debbie Harry vibe. I also like the French/Algerian secret agent character played by Sofia Boutella. Incidentally, in the original comic book this character was a man, but it was a very smart creative move to change the gender.
  2. The backdrop of Berlin in 1989 is picturesque and atmospheric, with a good use of details (interiors of flats in East Berlin, screening of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, underground breakdance parties in the East vs. decadent nightclubs in the West). As the main characters wandered around from one secret meeting to another, you couldn’t help feeling that this was more of an advertisement for Berlin than anything else.
  3. The music was brilliant: recognisable 80s hits, although mostly predating 1989. You can’t go wrong with an opening and closing sequence featuring David Bowie (Putting Out Fire/Cat People to start off with, and Under Pressure for the end). Plus there were some suitable German titles as well: Nena’s 99 Red Balloons, Peter Schilling’s Major Tom (memorably featured as title theme for Deutschland 83 series) and Falco’s Der Kommissar (although not in Falco’s German version, sadly). However, when you read how complicated it is to get approvals for all these songs, you realise that some tough choices had to be made.
  4. The fight scenes were well choreographed and more realistic than in most superhero or spy movies (although at times too gory for my delicate stomach). There were people panting, struggling, stumbling, being hurt, not quite succeeding, bruises and plasters galore. Life as a spy is not glamorous and James Bond like (although there are some champagne moments): it’s ice baths and careful make-up to cover up the wounds. And lots of pointless walking about and trusting no one, apparently.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
Charlize Theron

And then here are the things which I liked less.

A. The plot is incredibly convoluted and far-fetched. Which is fine, because it is based on a comic book. And in fact, if I am not mistaken, there was at some point in the 1980s a list of Western assets in Eastern Europe that intelligence agencies were afraid might end up in the wrong hands. (I can’t find any details about it, but if anyone knows about this, do let me know. I’m pretty sure I didn’t dream it up!)

B. The problem I always have with Cold War spy thrillers is that it was often far more boring than it’s depicted – but also more nuanced. Real spies would not go around killing members of the police – they were very keen to lie as low as possible. Having lived in an East European country myself at the time, I know that the ‘threat of repercussions’ was often more than enough to keep people in line. Self-censorship was a way of life. Spying was mostly done via bugging or denunciations from the inside. Real hunger (not so much in East Germany, which remained relatively prosperous) and greed for Western products was enough to enable small-scale denouncements (as hinted at by the black marketeer character of David Percival) – but these people seldom had anything of real value to offer. It would be more of a list of people who assembled at a church or demonstrated against the regime etc. The real hero of the film is Spyglass, who could no longer accept the Stasi policies but was aware of the devastating consequences this could have for himself and his family. The foreign spies? On the whole, they could parachute in and out without any trouble and enjoyed diplomatic immunity.

C. By November 1989, the situation would have escalated beyond the capabilities of any secret services. Most people in the former Eastern bloc are now convinced that the 1989 wave of revolutions was aided and abetted by Western intelligence agencies, and that they outwitted the Soviets in that instance. Some of the backbenchers of the Communist Party were no doubt approached and contributed to ousting their leaders, in the hope of gaining power themselves. However, there was also a degree of spontaneity to the mass demonstrations which caught them by surprise. Yes, they might have thought of the people as ‘cannon fodder’ to accelerate the fall of Communism and spread the capitalist ideology to new markets where they could sell their lesser quality goods (I remember those expired foodstuffs flooding our shelves in the 1990s). But, as always happens when you stoke the flames of revolutionary zeal, things don’t always work out as planned. Not everything went the way the Western powers had hoped.

Or perhaps I like to think that. So that assertion by the handsome East German contact Merkel(!) that he’s got people ready to cause trouble at any moment upset me…

Anyway, all this need not trouble you, the casual viewer. Go and enjoy the stylish noir vibe, dwell in 80s nostalgia, get the thrill of the action. Just try not to be facile in dividing the world into goodies and baddies once more…


The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

Layout 1Kudos to Peirene Press for continuing to find intriguing and unusual works to translate, from Europe and just beyond Europe. In this case, it’s by a writer from Uzbekistan but the action takes place in the steppes of Kazakhstan. The story of a young man is actually the story of the gradual decline of two families, but in fact encapsulates and personalises the entire Cold War history.

This is the second novel in quick succession by an author stemming from the Russian tradition in which the narration is a story within a story, told by a musician during one of those endless Russian railway journeys.  The narrator comes across a child busker on a train and is amazed by his skills playing the violin. He then discovers that the musician, Yershan, is in fact a fully grown man, who still looks like a boy, and is intrigued to find out how he got like this.  Yershan is happy to oblige, but has his own roundabout, unhurried way of telling the tale.

He talks about the harsh but idyllic childhood in an isolated community (formed of just two extended families) in the vicinity of a nuclear reactor in the Kazakh steppes.  He talks about riding camels or donkeys to school, the strange beauty of the vast and endless expanses, the ominous rumblings beneath the earth which terrify all the animals. Above all, he talks about the love of his life, the little girl Aisulu that he grew up with. In a fit of boyish bravado, on a school trip to the nuclear reactor, he dives into a radioactive lake to impress her and all his other classmates. Since then, he stopped growing and had to watch his beloved Aisulu turn into a tall shapely woman, one he fears would never look at him. In the process of recounting his own great sorrow, he reveals not only his secret but also the saga of two families destroyed by silence, unspeakable loves, death and destruction, resilience and fortitude.

It took me a few pages to get into the story. The myths and legends told by the grandmothers seemed confusing at first – all those strange names and complicated family ties. But then the poetry of the landscape and the country childhood took over. It is a very short, yet remarkable and moving read. A lyrical book about a very difficult period in history, with the almost parody-like refrain of Uncle Shaken ‘We shall overtake the Americans!’

The chilling factual introduction to the story says it all:

Between 1949 and 1989 at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site a total of 468 nuclear explosions were carried out… The aggregate yield of the nuclear devices tested… exceeded by a factor of 2,500 the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Americans in 1945.