Among actors, Klaus Maria Brandauer is our greatest master of deceit -- even when he's telling you what he's hiding, he's still hiding something -- and the dazzling vectors of his performance carry "Colonel Redl" through its sometimes considerable longueurs.
Loosely based on a true story, "Colonel Redl" is a movie about the bargains people make with power, and about the masks such people wear, masks that erode the soul. The young Redl (Ga'bor Svidrony) learns his lessons early, as a scholarship student at the officers academy, where his loyalty (and his willingness to rat on his classmates) sets him apart. Here, he befriends young Kubinyi (Gyo rgy Ra'cz), scion of an aristocratic family, which only reminds him of what he isn't; and here are planted (with a bit too much Freudian determinism for my tastes) the seeds of his homosexual ambivalence: death of father, fondling of piano teacher, corporal punishment, company of boys.
Redl does, indeed, become an officer (Brandauer), and something of an anomaly in the dissolute Austrian officer corps, whose Prince Hal is Kubinyi (Jan Niklas). They drink and whore, and Redl drinks and whores with them; always, though, he seems to be watching from behind glass. Early on, his colonel advises him, "Self-control above all else," and he's hammered that motto into a sword.
But if Redl's lived by a code, that code has become increasingly ridiculous as Europe moves toward World War I (his boss is the Archduke Ferdinand, the fellow who caught Gavrilo Princip's bullet in Sarajevo). And the contradictions in his personality start to tear at him. Appointed by Ferdinand as chief of intelligence, he looks up his own file, which scalds him as "an ambitious climber." Tossing his photographs on the table, he mutters, "Poses! Poses!" He edits the report by adding (and underlining) "insincere."
The poses we all strike are a favorite theme of director Istva'n Szabo' ("Mephisto"). But what's gained in depth here is lost in drama. The movie's cinematography (by Lajos Koltai) has been blued till you think what really started World War I was an epidemic of anemia. And Szabo' has a weakness for costume-drama spectacle (masquerade balls and the like) that tends to leash the movie in midcanter.
Still, he knows how to give his actors room. Typical of the general excellence of the supporting cast is Armin Mueller-Stahl as the Archduke, a two-chinned, bleary-eyed actor who gives slovenliness a moral dimension.
In the end, though, "Colonel Redl" is Brandauer's movie -- you always see the wheels turning behind his narrow, almost porcine eyes. He knows how to fawn without fawning, to give leadership the appearance of leadership; you get the feeling that, had he been born 60 years earlier, he'd have been Colonel Redl. The only flaw in Brandauer's Redl is that he may be a shade too guarded -- even in scenes where he might show some tenderness, he holds back.
As the film concludes, Redl's contradictions accumulate in a thrilling climax: Brandauer wheels around the room like a renegade bumper car, the snarls, hisses and whines of a cornered animal hurtling out of him. To say you feel his pain would unduly minimize it -- you feel like someone's driving a corkscrew straight into your liver.
Colonel Redl, at the K-B Janus, is rated R, and contains nudity, some violence and sexual themes.