Thursday, September 20, 2012

THE DEMOCRATIC TERRORIST (Den demokratiske terroristen, 1992)

Pound for pound, or proportionate to its size, Sweden may be the world's superpower of mystery fiction. In the U.S. we see countless translations of Swedish mystery and crime novels, with the "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" series just the tip of the iceberg. My impression is that we don't see so much of Swedish spy fiction. Maybe the Swedes don't write so much in that genre, or maybe their attitude toward the Cold War made their stories untranslatable in the U.S. Nevertheless, Sweden has its own pop spy fiction, and if not the Swedish James Bond, Jan Guillou's Carl Hamilton seems to be one of the country's most popular fictional spies, adapted often into TV and film. Per Berglund's film is the second adaptation of the second novel in Guillou's series, and you can see why, despite the effort to film as much of this movie in English as possible, Carl Hamilton might not appeal to Americans. Democratic Terrorist has a familiar enough story: the spy must infiltrate a leftist terror cell of the German Red Army Faction to prevent an attack on the American embassy in Stockholm. But Hamilton himself (Stellan Skarsgard) has a reputation as a leftist, and one of his greatest exploits before this was to wipe out an Israeli hit team that had attacked a Swedish office of the Palestine Liberation Organization. While this makes him an ideal infiltrator, it raises the risk that he might go native, if you will.

Democratic Terrorist nevertheless seems aimed at a U.S. audience, if only because English is spoken more than Swedish or German. In story terms, that's because Hamilton knows only "ein bisschen" of German, and the Germans know even less Swedish. English thus becomes a kind of lingua franca of Europe, since it seems to be everyone's second language. Skarsgard handles the task easily enough; the future Dr. Selvig of Avengers fame had already made inroads in Hollywood by this time, and it's fun to see him kicking ass in his prime here. The other cast members may all be dubbed, for all I know.

Whatever Guillou's novel was like, Berglund's movie offers a campy caricature of Germany, from the sleaze and grunge of Hamburg's red-light district to the dilletante fanaticism of the young guerrillas Hamilton seeks out. Knowing that they're looking for a Swede to aid them in setting up their plan, he takes a room in a no-tell motel and lurks the mean streets while the director observes the freaks and slobs around him. After Hamilton picks a fight over a pinball machine and shows off his fighting prowess and his Swedishness, he's approached by the RAF people and taken to their spacious pad. After promptly taking charge and chiding them all for their amateurishness, he solidifies his credentials by leading them in a bank robbery. Before long, he's falling in love with one of the pretty young terrorists who has a wealthy background. He's also entrusted to accompany two of the gang on a weapons-buying trip to Syria (played here by the Kingdom of Morocco) that goes sour when the PLO gets wind of what the Germans are up to. The Palestinians feel, as Hamilton does, that the attack on the Americans in Stockholm will only damage the international anti-imperialist cause. Worse, it'll probably be blamed on them. Their solution is to kill the Germans, but to save himself Hamilton blows his cover, explaining that only he can thwart the attack at this point. The Palestinians check his references and respect his way with Israelis, but insist that he prove his sincerity on this occasion by killing his German companions. As they curse him as a traitor, he cuts the Germans' throats; Berglund illustrates this with a suggestively gruesome shot from Hamilton's hip as blood suddenly gushes from above. But that's not the end of his Syrian sojourn. To convince his marks back in Germany that he'd been tortured but escaped, he has to let the Palestinians shoot him and otherwise mess him up.

What follows is fairly predictable as far as both the spy and romance plots are concerned, but the film's main point has been made. All institutions, even ostensibly revolutionary entities, act according to self-interest first before considering principles. The Palestinians readily sell-out their German sympathizers and justify that betrayal of solidarity with appeals to realpolitik. Individuals are expendable, as Hamilton will learn when he tries to spare one from the retribution the German police are planning. This is espionage as tragedy rather than romance. Nations may win, individuals may not. Beyond that, Berglund's movie is nothing special. The plot is by the numbers except for that PLO twist, and the script has too many terrorists to deal with to develop many of them adequately as personalities. But I found it worth watching if only for the different perspective it provided on terror wars back. The Hamburg scenes are amusing in a way that may not have been intended, but Skarsgard gives just the performance the material demands. He does enough to get you empathizing with him despite the film's faults, and you can see why Hollywood grabbed him. And if the novel's in English somewhere, I might even read it someday.

1 comment:

Thomas T. Sueyres said...

Definitely not the best Hamilton movie by far, and ironically the one least likely to appeal to American audiences.