After winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for “Mephisto” in the early 1980s, arguably the most successful Hungarian filmmaker of all time, Istvan Szabo, has once again teamed up with Austrian actor Klaus Mario Brandauer. Just as Klaus Kinski had the best and most famous roles with Werner Herzog, the situation is the same with Szab and Brandauer, and “Colonel Redl” is also considered the central part of the Hungarian’s informal Germanic trilogy, which was later concluded with “Hanussen”. Apart from the fact that Brandauer played the main roles in all three films, “Mephisto”, “Colonel Redl” and “Hanussen” have in common that they are still quite free stories about real historical characters who suppressed their moral characteristics and drives in order to succeed in social scale at the time of authoritarian political powers.
Colonel Alfred Redl is also a real historical figure, a high-ranking officer in the Austro-Hungarian army at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Instead of literally following Redl’s biographical story, Szaba’s film is more inspired by the British drama “A Patriot for Me”, based on which a controversial play was performed at the end of the 1960s, which was not allowed to be performed in London. It is a film about a man of humble origins, a poor country boy who has that typical feeling of inferiority for people of his origin. This will especially come to the fore at the military academy and later, when Redl will turn into a snitch and a careerist who steps over others in order to achieve his ambitions.
He is originally from Galicia, which was then under the Hungarian administration in a huge empire, and Szabo did a great job in “Colonel Redl” by portraying the historical – political context and circumstances. After the introductory part when Redl is a boy in a military school, the time of the action is the end of the 19th and the very beginning of the 20th century, when it seems that the empire is about to collapse, and the army is in an increasingly disorganized state. While the Hungarians, whose corps Redl belongs to, are dissatisfied with the oppression of Vienna and consider themselves deprived, at the same time they treat other nations in the empire in the same way.
National heterogeneity is evident not only in the army, but also in society, and this is becoming an increasingly sensitive issue in a huge empire, because more and more peoples want the right to self-determination, while at the same time the surrounding countries are also just waiting to destroy it. So even though Redl is nominally Hungarian, he was instilled in his loyalty to Emperor Franz Joseph from childhood, thanks to whose scholarship, as a poor boy, he even ended up at the military academy. Because of his loyalty to the crown, he will later come into conflict with Hungarian officers in the army who are increasingly calling for independence from the Habsburgs. Soon he will become one of the pets of the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Armin Müller – Stahl), who will hire him for political plots, intrigues, espionage and subterfuge in the struggle for power in the pre-war army.
And Redl will carry out all these orders and requests without reproach, and at the same time he will try to hide his homosexual tendencies as long as possible, knowing that because of this he could end up in the army. And while in reality Redl was a spy for the Russian army and his motives for betrayal are still unclear, although it is assumed that blackmail due to homosexual tendencies exposed by the Russians could be one of the reasons, in Szaba’s film he is portrayed as a tragic figure. He will turn into a pawn in the archduke’s schemes and intrigues aimed at gaining power, and in the end Redl himself will die in this dangerous game. “Colonel Redl” was also nominated for the Oscar for the best foreign film, and won the jury prize at the Cannes festival.