Saturday Matinée 2013 14(?): Spies of Warsaw

spies of warsaw tennant

For J-F Mercier, looks like the jig is up. They do what to spies, again?

Everybody likes a spy movie, right? And everyone likes a movie with a twist. And everyone likes a World War II movie, at least if it doesn’t suck like (we could name names here, couldn’t we?) Spies of Warsaw is a BBC TV film that was shown on BBC 4 in the UK and BBC America in the USA. (It’s available in the US on DVD already). As the title subtly trumpets, it is a spy movie. It’s actually set in the period just before, and in the first few days of, World War II. That’s the first part of the twist. The second part is that the hero is French.

Lt. Colonel Jean-François Mercier (David Tennant) is a French attaché — and, to be sure, spy and spymaster — in Warsaw. The movie sweeps along from 1937 or so to the first days of September, 1939. A great deal of the suspense is created because the viewer, unlike the characters, know what’s ahead for them, or at least people like them: the Old Bolsheviks, suddenly given a recall to Moscow. The gallant Polish officer who is ready to fight the Russians as he did in the Polish War of Independence, when the Bolsheviks first invaded the fledgling state after Versailles; but he also has to be ready to fight the Germans. And are the Germans preparing to fight? The answer seems to be ganz klar, but that raises the next burning question: where?

It’s for us to know, and Mercier and his agents and friends to find out (we assume that most readers of this blog are up on who attacked whom, where, and in what order; and what fates befell the nations attacked over the next six or so years).

Mercier has to deal with the case officer or agent handler’s common issues: agents who get burned by the SD and wind up dead; agents who lose their access, and therefore utility; agents who flip and start sending rubbish; agents who won’t cooperate unless they’re blackmailed; agents to whom you make promises, that are then broken by your superiors. Then there are the issues faced by every intelligence officer, whether he handles human sources or not. Chief among these is overcoming superiors who don’t trust you.

Mercier finds himself a Cassandra in France, even after he pulls off a case officer’s career coup: recruiting an officer on the German General Staff, one who had previously worked for the Soviets.

The two-part film is based fairly closely on a novel by Alan Furst, with a great deal of trimming to fit two 90-minute episodes (with a cliffhanging kidnapping at the end of the first). One nice touch for Furst fans is a character or two from other Furst novels — something Furst himself seems to delight in doing in the print realm.

Spies of Warsaw panzersBy filming in part in Poland, the producers had access not only to convincing Polish as well as “Czech,” “German,” and “French” terrain, they also were able to deploy Polish reenactors as Wehrmacht and Polish Army extras. One real coup was obtaining the use of two very convincing Panzer II replicas, which were used in two scenes. As this page explains, they were replica Pz. IIs built on the chassis of a small Franco-German APC, the Hotchkiss Schutzenpanzerwagen. Unlike CGI tanks or many stage-lot replicas, these things move like tanks.

There are two inaccuracies in the movie’s portrayal of small arms: while the spies of all nations use handguns, there’s a little too much use of the then-novel Walther P.38 to be accurate — the gun had barely been adopted by the aggressively rearming Wehrmacht, so it’s a bit strange to see them in the hands of foreign spies. And, in one case, an assassin is armed with a suppressed pistol — with a tiny, “Hollywood” suppressor. Other than that, and perhaps a slightly too dramatic gasoline explosion in one scene, the weapons depicted are correctly portrayed and used. In fact, this is one of the few movies where good guys as well as bad guys can fire a bunch of shots without connecting — just like real life.  A very few actual Panzer IIs and variants, of the many thousands manufactured, survived the war.

The script and acting are, as you might expecrt from the Beeb, first-class. There’s a tangled love affair that proves somewhat distracting to Mercier (with the distracting Janet Montgomery playing a League of Nations lawyer, a character description that just screams “naive and helpless,” like the League itself). There’s a best buddy, the friendship complicated by him being of another nationality (Polish). He’s ably portrayed by Polish actor Marcin Dorocinski. Character actors fill out the small and even bit parts convincingly.

Bottom line: at the end of two 90-minutes sessions of this, we were aching for a sequel, or at least another Furst adaptation, if we can’t have the sequel he didn’t write. We like the movie, and think that you will, too. It deserved better than a near-simultaneous cable and DV release, with zero publicity. So let’s give it some!