The Soviet film industry produced few works as large-scale and as enduringly popular as the 1979 multi-part World War II drama Seventeen Moments of Spring. It seems, at first, an unlikely candidate for a popular epic: twelve hours long, black and white, it eschews battle scenes, explosions, and special effects in favor of tense confrontations in wood-paneled offices. It is unsurprising that the film is almost unknown in the West—after all, Western audiences could hardly recognize the star-studded cast and the intense patriotic appeal of its subject matter. (It does not help that Americans are presented in a particularly unflattering light.) Yet the film, despite all its apparent defects, still has something to say—for the questions it asks about the individual’s place in a world of institutions remain unanswered even after the end of history.
The plot of Seventeen Moments of Spring is complex and convoluted, but it is possible to sketch a rough outline. The action takes place, as the title suggests, over seventeen days in February and March of 1945. The protagonist, SS Standartenführer Stierlitz—actually a Red Army colonel named Isaev, resident as a spy in Germany for over a decade—receives word from Moscow that highly-placed Nazis are planning to divide the Allies by signing a separate peace with the Western powers. He is tasked with sabotaging the negotiations, but a chance airstrike destroys his link to his superiors and sets off a chain of events that puts him under suspicion. He is left with only one hope: to use the interdepartmental bureaucratic squabbling of the Third Reich elite to carry out his mission and save his own skin. In a fascinating way, the film’s techniques for propelling this narrative forward are those of the police procedural, not the James Bond spy movie. We follow the patient accumulation of the case against Stierlitz, watching the Gestapo slowly connect the dots, only because we know that he can only be saved by cunning and rhetoric, not an ejector seat.
What this unexceptional description fails to bring out is the extent to which this film is about Nazis. Nearly every character is a Nazi or pretending to be one; nearly every costume bears a skull or a swastika; nearly every set has a portrait of Adolf Hitler. Yet this is not simply local color, and the characters are not faceless computer-game zombies. One of the film’s signature elements is the means by which it introduces the major players: intelligence reports from their Gestapo personal files. This seems, at first, like a convenient expository device—until the viewer realizes that all the reports are almost exactly the same. (“A true Aryan. Personality Nordic, steadfast. Merciless to the enemies of the Reich.”) Far from fitting the stereotype of efficient Germanic fanaticism, the Third Reich in its last days is an empire in which ideology has become empty, in which loud “Heil Hitlers” mask pessimistic fatalism, egoism, and incompetence. In fact, only two characters even bother to argue with the belief in Germany’s inevitable failure: Adolf Hitler and Stierlitz himself. Where his colleagues at the SS are lazy, cynical, and careerist, Stierlitz is the perfect Nazi; it is obvious that he takes his job far more seriously than they do.
All of this suggests a nagging question, one that is impossible to avoid for anyone who watches this film in the post-communist era. To what extent is Seventeen Moments really a film à clef, a vicious satire of Soviet society in its “age of stagnation”? It would not be difficult to swap out the swastikas for hammers and sickles, the skulls for red stars, Adolf Hitler for V. I. Lenin, and the result would not be far from a true-to-life portrait of Brezhnevite officialdom. The fit is not quite perfect, of course—the plot is somewhat uncongenial to such a translation—but the question cannot easily be dismissed.
To answer it, we must consider the role Stierlitz plays in the film’s structure. It is a remarkably contradictory role, because he is forced to be both a moral hero and a Nazi imposter. Again and again, he is confronted with the need to play the part without acting against his convictions; he must prevent himself, ultimately, from becoming a Nazi. He can do so only by keeping his private self as far away from his public one as possible. As a result, his most evocative facial expression is an absence of facial expression, which represents the trace of his struggle to keep the private self from shining through. The intended message is not the traditional stuff of moralistic fiction. Here the emphasis is not on honesty, sincerity, and authenticity as guarantors of moral action; rather, the film suggests that any kind of lie, deception, and pretense is acceptable as a means of safeguarding internal moral independence. The “Moments” of the title are not simply days; as the theme song makes clear, what is at stake in each moment is the moral realization or failure of an entire life, and such a moment has the power to exculpate every compromise that had come before. In the film, this thesis is illustrated by a dramatic and ultimately heroic act of suicide.
As the story proceeds to its conclusion—and here we must abandon intention and focus on the underlying structure—Stierlitz’s careful stance is dissolved into something murkier. Throughout the film, he had lived his life as a bureaucrat and relied on bureaucratic politics to save him, which, according to the film’s logic, is an acceptable concession in the service of nobler ends. Bureaucracy, in other words, is represented as a sphere of moral compromise and compromised morality. (Crucially, this is the case even for the film’s ideologically faithful Nazis, who must use bureaucratic politics to work around Hitler himself and save the Party’s seedlings for the future.) Within the framework of the film, the confrontation between moral courage and bureaucracy is represented by the confrontation between Stierlitz and Müller, the Gestapo officer charged with incriminating him. Müller is depressed, alcoholic, and thoroughly mercenary: he was just as happy to chase down Nazis for the Weimar government as he is to track Communists for its successors.
Viewed in this way, the film’s notion of bureaucracy and institutional structure appears quite unconventional. In the classic Weberian model, bureaucracy is characterized by meritocratic values, impersonal legal norms, and a particular kind of instrumental rationality; according to popular stereotype, bureaucracies are staffed by faceless functionaries and prize process over results. Yet here, the bureaucracy is defined precisely by the personal relationships that subsist between its employees. Its fault is not that it is too abstract or too by-the-book. Quite the opposite: bureaucratic politics in Seventeen Moments of Spring are quintessentially narrow-minded and myopic. It sins, in short, by refusing engagement with abstract questions.
So where does this leave the good guys? In the film’s closing episodes, we encounter Stalin himself, formulating a diplomatic message about the film’s events to his faithless allies. Not only does he resemble, in bearing and deviousness, all of the high-ranking Nazis that Stierlitz encounters; even his wood-paneled office uses a nearly identical set. The implication seems to be that even international politics is simply a macrocosm of bureaucratic politics, equally false, equally petty. Nothing presented in the film suggests that either Stalin or the treacherous Americans have anything more in mind than point-scoring (although the latter at least have the threat of “Bolshevism” to back them up). If there is an exculpatory moment anywhere for them, they seem blissfully unaware of it. True, the audience is expected to fill in this background by itself. But judged on the film’s own terms, the Allied leadership fails the one great test.
By implication, then, the success of Stierlitz’s mission, and of the Allied cause, does not liberate him from the need to impersonate. He has destroyed one bureaucracy so that a larger one may live. Thus Stierlitz’s moral courage, in the end, simply dissolves into a vain gesture, the ultimate compromise. On the other hand, we never do find out what happened to Müller—but we can assume he will adjust just fine.
The film’s creators, of course, did not see Stalin and the Nazi bureaucrats as at all alike, and they wanted to present Stierlitz as saving Europe from the Third Reich. The victor was supposed to Stierlitz, not Müller: that much is clear. But their own film conspires against them: its very chronological setting, those closing months when the Nazi cause was past saving, belies the reiterated claims about the dangers of the separate peace. “Nado rabotat’,” says the closing voiceover: “it is necessary to work,” even when victory is a foregone conclusion. This must have been intended to be heroic, but reading the film as the story of the all-encompassing triumph of bureaucracy makes it sound especially sinister. In other words, Seventeen Moments of Spring, with its Kafkaesque moral, is not a film à clef—for the whole world may as well be the Soviet Union.