Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII, the Allies divided Germany into a larger democratic parliamentary state (the Federal Republic of Germany) and a communist state (the German Democratic Republic). Within a few years after its establishment, by the mid-fifties, the capitalist West Germany enjoyed a thriving economy. By way of contrast, East Germany, controlled by the Soviet Union, mirroring its police state (the Stasi was modeled after the KGB) and exploited for its needs, sank into economic depression.
Like a microcosm of the divisions within Germany itself, Berlin was divided into a communist and a democratic part: East and West Berlin. In 1961 the East Germans erected the Berlin wall, officially called the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall”, under the pretext of protecting their population from fascist elements. In actuality, they were striving to put an end to the exodus of people fleeing East Berlin into West Berlin. The wall, along with the East German soldiers shooting upon sight any person trying to climb over it, turned out to be highly effective. Before the wall was built, over 3 million refuges fled East Germany into West Germany. After the building of the Berlin Wall—namely, between 1961 and 1989–hardly anyone from East Germany escaped into West Germany.
Steven Spielberg’s new historical drama, Bridge of Spies (October 2015), captures the chaos and brutality during the erection of the Berlin war as well as the atmosphere of mutual suspicion between East and West during the Cold War. The movie focuses on a New York lawyer’s (James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks) efforts to represent a man accused of being a Soviet spy (Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance). Ironically, in the country that supposedly represents democratic freedom and due process, nobody except for Donovan himself seems willing to offer the captured Soviet agent a fair trial. The judge, the press, and the public have all made up their minds about Abel’s guilt and push for the death penalty.
Donovan himself becomes an outcast when he insists upon due process and a fair trial for his client. At one point, his willingness to stand up for his convictions even risks his family life, as someone shoots into his home and nearly kills his oldest daughter. There’s more than just conviction at play in this historical movie that is also, and above all, a drama. Donovan respects his client’s unflappable calm and the fact that he’s not willing to abandon his principles and loyalty to the Soviet Union despite the risk of being convicted and getting the death penalty. Abel’s situation appears hopeless.
It’s only when two American citizens—U.S. pilot Gary Powers, sent to fly on a recognizance mission over Soviet Territory, and graduate student Frederic Pryor—get caught in the East Block that the CIA proves willing to spare Donovan and trade him for the two young Americans.
Donovan goes to Berlin to negotiate a difficult tripartite swap of prisoners—offering Abel to the Soviet Union in exchange for retrieving the student from East Berlin and the pilot from the Russians. This is no easy task since East Germany initially resists being lumped together in a negotiation with the Soviet Union. While still in the grip of the communist Super Power, East Germany desires to be recognized as its own autonomous communist state and hence negotiate its own independent exchange with the West. Donovan’s tenacity and his ability to stand up for his principles eventually triumphs in this historic prisoner swap that momentarily defies the logic of the Cold War. This film, which masterfully combines drama, spy thriller and historical fact, is bound to become, much like Schindler’s List, a Spielberg classic.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon