Hungarian director István Szabó put his country on the map with his masterpiece, 'Sunshine.' Yet, it would be pity if his earlier works failed to get the credit they so much deserve. 'Colonel Redl' is one of his very best, but hardly known west of the Danube.
While the setting of the film(turn-of-the-century Austro-Hungary)may seem distant to many, Colonel Alfred Redl remains a character many of us can identity with. Born into a mixed family, his mother of impoverished Hungarian nobility, his father, a Ruthenian station-master, Redl is the everyman of Central Europe. Denied the chance to identify with the simmering national movements that eventually tore the Hapsburg Empire apart, Redl finds his own identity in being a 'servant' of Empire and Emperor.
The film opens with Redl being sent off to military school to become an officer in the Imperial Army. Redl mother wants to restore her family's past glory through her son, and Redl soon wins favor everywhere for his talent, drive and loyalty to the Empire's ideal: tolerance for all and devotion to the Crown. Redl befriends Kubinyi, a Hungarian nobleman,and together the two slowly climb the ladder of career-officers. While Kubinyi slowly falls prey to the national aspirations of a Hapsburg-free Hungary, Redl remains faithful to his benefactor, to his raison d'etre. Redl feverishly defends his King and country by working to uncover the various nationalistic movements that threaten the Empire's solidarity.
His superiors find the perfect servant in Redl. His loyalty to the crown is steadfast, but the parvenus around the aging Emperor sense that Redl is their worst enemy. Nationalism is just one of the many diseases gnawing away at the Empire. The self-interest and greed of the nobles-in-waiting prove to be an even greater danger. As head of counter-intelligence, Redl soon sniffs out the bloody dagger; Austrian and Hungarian aristocrats are planning a coup d'etát with the help of Tsarist Russia.
Waiting to catch the guilty conspirators, Redl is caught instead. His hidden homosexuality becomes known to the court and he is put into a compromising position. Public disgrace with discharge from the service or take the 'more honorable' position of scapegoat that he, Colonel Redl, conspired with the Russians. Disloyalty to himself or disloyalty to the Emperor and Empire---to his new-found father and family? A cruel choice that Redl is forced to make.
'Colonel Redl' works like a Shakespearian tragedy. Caught between a vice-grip of loyalties, the individual must learn the bitter truth of 'to thine own self be true.' A lesson universally true, irregardless of time and place. Not only does this film put you before a painful human conflict, it also delights the eyes. Like in all Szabó films, colors, smiles, glances and even the smallest of details all mesh together to create that which is often missing from films nowadays: atmosphere. Szabó puts you into Redl's stark Galician home, rigid military school, into the arms of his lovers--both male and female--and lastly, into the velvet-padded room of his final torment. Szabó has assembled a brilliant cast from some of Hungary's finest actors---look for Károly Eperjes and Dorottya Udvaros, but Austrian Klaus Brandauer steals the show. One of the most expressive of actors, his every movement, every stare, every sigh convey more than hours of dialogue ever could.
For those interested in Central Europe, 'Colonel Redl' is a must-see. Moreover, those connoisseurs of sensitive and wrenching drama should search for this rare diamond on Istvan Szabó's jewel-studded crown. Highly recommended!