Retrospective: Undercover North/Northeast, Spies and Secret Agents in Scandinavian and Baltic Cinema 1913-2012 – Suspenseful films from the Baltic Rim against a backdrop of contemporary history

September 17, 2019. The Retrospective of the 61st Nordische Filmtage Lübeck (Oct. 29 – Nov. 3, 2019), titled Undercover North/Northeast, Spies and Secret Agents in Scandinavian and Baltic Cinema, takes a look far into the past in a section comprising 17 films (15 features and two mid-length films). The section will screen films made between 1913 and 2012 in Denmark, Germany, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, as well as in what were the Soviet socialist republics of Latvia and Estonia, and Lithuania during the same era. And the spy capers are not confined to just thrillers – the films include dramas, melodramas, comedies, satire, and period films. Surprisingly, women have pride of place in many of the films, actively engaged in intelligence operations.

The Baltic beaches were known as the “spy coast” during the Cold War in the years 1945 to 1989. But it wasn’t just in the era when the Iron Curtain between the NATO states and the Warsaw Pact countries crossed the landscape just a few kilometres east of Lübeck that the intelligence agencies of various spheres of influence faced off here. Early silent films take us back to the international “spy fever” before World War I – a time when much of Europe was gripped by the fear of being infiltrated by secret agents sent by foreign powers. Two films that are prime examples of that are S 1 (GER 1913) with Asta Nielsen, and For the Fatherland (SWE 1914). “Those films formulated stereotypical concepts of national enemies that are influential even today, for instance the ‘suspicious Mediterranean type’”, says Jörg Schöning, curator and director of the Retrospective, “They propagated a dubious patriotism, and yet they contained contradictions, which makes them interesting for us today. In S 1, we feel the trepidation as an emancipated young woman goes up against her father, and in For the Fatherland, a Sami – considered a pariah in Sweden at the time – becomes the hero of the story”. Also artistically impressive is the spy drama Sealed Orders (DEN 1914), an early film noir by Danish director Benjamin Christensen.

Another subject that is addressed in the films is the precarious relationship between a newly independent Finland and the neighbouring Soviet Union (The Supreme Victory, FIN 1929). Meanwhile, two Norwegian melodramas tackle the consequences to the intelligence services of the joint commitment of Scandinavian resistance fighters and Russian partisans against Nazi Germany during World War II (Burnt by Frost, NOR 1997 and Ice Kiss, NOR 2008, both directed by Knut Erik Jensen). Resistance to the German military is also the subject of the bizarre Baltic spy story Madness (EST 1968).

Suspenseful and realistic crime dramas from Estonia and Latvia, such as Uninvited Guests (EST 1959) and When Wind and Rain Hit Against Your Window (LAT 1967) depict the stories of western agents who were infiltrated into those countries across the Baltic in German speedboats commissioned by the British secret service M16.

The 1970s policy of détente is reflected in espionage farces from Norway, for instance in Pål Bang-Hansen’s Douglas (NOR 1970) and Erik Løchen’s film Remonstrance (NOR 1972). And the activities of the KGB during that era are the subject of The White Ship (EST 1970) and Children from the Hotel “America” (LIT 1990). The machinations of the Soviet intelligence services are also the subject of big-budget international thrillers from the 1980s. Among those are The Inside Man (SWE/GB 1984), with Dennis Hopper and Hardy Krüger, as well as Orion's Belt (NOR 1985).

The section’s opening film is a forceful depiction of the international fusion of secret service activities and how powerfully they could resonant in everyday life. In the Norwegian-German co-production Two Lives (2012, dir: Georg Maas), Liv Ullmann and Juliane Köhler deliver an impressive depiction of the effect on a family when it becomes the target of a foreign intelligence service – in this case, the notorious East German “Stasi” ministry of state security.

The activities of secret agents that foreshadow modern day terrorism are manifest in the closing film of the Retrospective, the Swedish-German co-production The Democratic Terrorist directed by Per Berglund (1992). Set in the Hamburg of the late 1980s, this political thriller (based on the book of the same name by Jan Guillou) tells the story of a Swedish agent sent undercover by Germany’s office for the protection of the constitution. He is placed in a cell of the militant left-wing Red Army Faction (RAF) to help prevent an attack on the US embassy in Stockholm. Stellan Skarsgård plays Carl Hamilton, the “Scandinavian James Bond” and is joined by a stellar German ensemble cast including Katja Flint, Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Tukur, Heikko Deutschmann, Rolf Hoppe, Günther Maria Halmer, and Burkhard Driest.

Following the great success of last year, the Retrospective’s silent films will once again be shown in the Hafenschuppen 6 (An der Untertrave). They will be accompanied by live music performed by students of the Lübeck Academy of Music (under the baton of Sascha Sauberborn), (dean: prof. Franz Danksagmüller), and Lübeck’s TroubaDuo (Jana Nitsch & Marcus Berthold) and others.

In addition the 6th Lübeck Film Studies Colloquium will address topics suggested by the films of the Retrospective. The colloquium is organised in cooperation with the “Journal of Scandinavian Cinema”. Editor-in-chief Anders Marklund, a professor at Lund University in Sweden, will present a special issue of the journal dedicated to “espionage activities in the Nordic countries” and explore the subject in discussions and colloquies with international film experts and interested guests. 

Finally, with the help of holographic installations and the Danish film composers, secret agents will appear among the passers-by in Lübeck’s Old Town. But of course, these undercover activities must remain … top secret!

Additional information on the Nordic Film Days Lübeck can be found at, and on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/nordicfilmdays.

Advance ticket sales begin on October 26, 2019.


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