Saturday, February 4, 2017

SARAJEVO (Das Attentat: Sarajevo 1914, 2014)

The U.S. will soon observe the centennial of its entry into World War I. With that in mind, Netflix is currently streaming Andreas Prochaska's Austro-Czech TV film, which looks to be the JFK of World War I movies. It's about the investigation by Austrian authorities in Sarajevo, the capital of Austrian-ruled Bosnia, of the assassination there of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The Archduke and his wife were killed on the second try that day by Serbian nationalists. Holding the Kingdom of Serbia responsible for their action, Austria issued an ultimatum most observers feel was designed to be rejected so that the Hapsburg empire, backed by Germany, could invade Serbia. Historians are certain that rogue elements within the Serbian government, if not the government itself, supported the conspiracy, but the assassination, given its world-historical consequences, has been an overdue target for more creative conspiracy theorists. Why, they might ask, was the Archduke allowed back on the street after the first assassination attempt, a bombing, failed? Why did the second motorcade seem to stop right in front of Gavrilo Princip, the gunman who succeeded where the bomber failed? And why would any Serbians carry out a conspiracy that amounted to national suicide?

The assassin's creed: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Prochaska and writer Martin Ambrosch go for the solution that probably seems most obvious to the modern conspiracist. Since Austria's ultimatum seemed to show that they were spoiling for war, might they not have tried to create a pretext for war themselves? Franz Ferdinand was a controversial figure thought to desire greater rights for the empire's ethnic minorities; that would make him expendable, presumably, to some in the Hapsburg establishment. But according to Ambrosch the ultimate motive is more venal. Investors wanted to build a railroad linking Germany to the farther reaches of the Ottoman Empire, reaching from Berlin to Bagdad. To be feasible the road would have to go through Serbia. Better than if Serbia were subject to the German powers in Berlin and Vienna. Serbs had reasons of their own to lash out at Austria -- they resented the perceived subjugation of fellow Serbs through the Austrian annexation of Bosnia in 1908 -- but given how obvious it now seems that Austria would punish Serbia with war, the Serbs can only seem patsies furthering what looks like an Austrian or German agenda.

A mere functionary like Leo Pfeffer can be told what to think; he has less luck convincing others.

So it comes to seem to Leo Pfeffer (Florian Teichtmeister), the magistrate put in charge of the initial investigation. He comes under increasing pressure to produce a report blaming the Serbian government as soon as possible, as if a timetable had already been determined. But as Pfeffer sees the apparent implausibilities in the events as they played out, and as he falls in love with the daughter of a Serbian industrialist who has fallen under suspicion, he begins to stall for time to get at the truths that his superiors seem increasingly uninterested in learning. As he keeps raising questions, and keeps pressuring Princip and the other Serb prisoners to tell all they know, he is made more conscious of his outsider status as a Jew who's in love with a Serb. Pfeffer was a real person who isn't highly thought of by historians who see him as an underqualified provincial. Das Attentat imagines a more conscientious Pfeffer who's forced to sign the required indictment of Serbia -- his motive here is to secure his lover's release from prison -- while continuing his own dogged quest for the truth to universal indifference. The filmmakers can change the historical Pfeffer, but their more heroic Pfeffer still can't change history. Teichtmeister gives a good slow-burn performance that permits some sympathetic suspension of disbelief as you hope he'll find something that might stop the war in its tracks. Inevitably Das Attentat must take the form of tragedy, and that tone seems appropriate to the tragic truth of the Great War, even if the filmmakers' historiography is unsound.

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