In many ways, James Bond is a terrible secret agent. He doesn’t even bother to come up with a fake name half the time! The average seedy bar with a “do not serve” list written in biro on a piece of paper stuck to a wall has enough security to keep him out.
If the stakes are high and you want a spy that will actually provide some useful information, you need to turn to someone a little more low-profile – which is what the SBS World Movies: Secrets & Spies collection of thrillers is all about.
All four of these films are based on true stories, which goes a long way towards explaining why there is not one tuxedo-clad international man of mystery to be found. Some of these spies just happened to be in the right place to gather information, while others used their professional lives to cover for their secret missions. Fictional spies can just race off in an Aston Martin when their cover is blown; for these spies, being uncovered could be fatal.
The closest to Bond-style glamour is Norway’s The Spy, the real-life story of famous Norwegian–Swedish actress Sonja Wigert (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) during World War II. But even here there’s a solid dose of gritty reality; while Wigert’s 40s style is more than stunning enough to explain how the Nazi chief of occupied Norway, Josef Terboven (Alexander Scheer), could (and did) fall for her, her espionage career has as much to do with protecting her ailing father as it is about doing what’s right and finding out Nazi secrets from her lover.
There’s plenty of seduction and pillow talk here, but the glamour is all a front. Spying is a dirty business – especially once Terboven has her working as a double agent spying on the Swedes – and finding someone you can trust with your heart, let alone your life, is all but impossible.
The Spy airs at 9.30pm, Monday 17 January on World Movies. It will be available at SBS On Demand for 4 weeks after it airs:
At first Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book seems a continuation of the sexy thrillers (remember Basic Instinct?) he made in the US, as World War II refugee Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) joins the Dutch resistance and seduces a local Nazi commander (Sebastian Koch).
While this serves up its share of Verhoeven’s trademark action and titillating moments (Stein has to dye her pubic hair blonde to successfully pass as Aryan), the real focus here is the shades of grey found in espionage work. As the Third Reich crumbles, some on both sides try to do the right thing, while others seek to settle scores and profit. Even after the war, betrayal is everywhere; for Stein the only way out is to embrace the violence around her.
Black Book airs at 9.30pm, Tuesday 18 January on SBS World Movies. It will be available at SBS On Demand for 30 days after it airs:
The very British Red Joan looks at spying from another angle. What if you had access to information that could make the world a more peaceful place, but only if you betrayed your own country? For Joan Smith (Sophie Cookson) spending time with Communists while studying physics in 1930s Cambridge was just part of the university experience. But when she found herself working as a secretary for the UK’s atomic bomb program, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and a little pressure from her lover) saw her supplying top secret information to the Soviet Union.
Judi Dench plays the elderly Joan, who’s being investigated long after the end of the Cold War. As a framing device this could easily have softened her betrayal, painting her actions as a youthful indiscretion that hardly matters now. Dench’s iron-willed performance refuses to take the easy way out. She thought what she was doing was right at the time, and she still believes so now; for her, selling out her country created a safer world no matter what the cost.
Red Joan airs at 9.30pm, Wednesday 19 January on SBS World Movies. It will be available at SBS On Demand for 30 days after it airs.
The Catcher Was A Spy
The Catcher Was A Spy is the kind of all-American story that has to be true because nobody could make it up. In the 1930s professional baseball player Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) – nicknamed “Professor” because he studied at Princeton and Columbia – cops abuse for being (definitely) Jewish and (possibly) homosexual, but thanks to his skill with languages, he gets a seat on an all-star baseball tour of Japan… where he promptly takes a bunch of very useful photos of the Japanese docks that score him a job with the OSS (the precursor to the CIA).
If that wasn’t unlikely enough, the meat of this film is Berg’s mission to Germany in 1944 to track down and chat up top Nazi scientist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) to find out how Hitler’s atomic bomb project is going – and if need be, put a bullet in him.
While Rudd might have the movie-star looks to play Bond, Berg is a much more complex character, an intellectual constantly finding himself between worlds even before he goes undercover. As with all the true-to-life spies in this collection, it’s brains that count in the end… though having a gun handy doesn’t exactly hurt.
The Catcher Was A Spy airs at 9.30pm, Thursday 20 January on SBS World Movies. The film is also now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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