I’m a sucker for old things – cars, instruments, my style of music (not very apparent sometimes), books, gadgets like cameras, and of course, films and tv shows. I’m not sure exactly why old things appeal to me, but often I find that such things provoke a sense of nostalgia, which I also find very charming.
I also have this keen interest in world history, especially that of the Second World War. While my main area of interest and know-how deals with the Pacific theatre, and stems mostly from my love of aviation, I also touch on the European theatre of things. And when you read about Europe during the war, you read about Hitler and his Wemacht, which leads you to main things like Operation Barbarossa, which leads you to other interesting stuff like how the Soviets beat back the mighty onslaught on their frontyard, and took the war and molotov bottles back to Germany, and on to the finale during the Battle of Berlin.
We all know that conflicts are not won on brute force alone, and that good intelligence on enemy movement is needed. That’s where espionage comes in to provide the missing pieces of info to effectively apply whatever force or strategy was needed. Fast forward to the 1960’s, spies were a big thing – the CIA and the KGB were busy spying on each other’s countries, Gary Powers was shot down, the US was believed to be infested by KGB moles, Danger Man was in the UK, Johnny Rivers was singing “Secret Agent Man”, and of course, the awesome yet fictional James Bond in the first of his many on screen incarnations.
Beyond the iron curtain though, was yet another character that many deem as the hammer and sickle’s answer to James Bond, Max Oto Von Stierlitz.
Standartenfuhrer Max Oto Von Stierlitz is the main character of a famous Soviet novel, Seventeen Moments of Spring, written by the famed Yulian Semyonov, who made a name for himself writing stories about espionage. The novel became a hit, and pretty soon, the KGB itself decided that it was awesome enough to turn into a TV miniseries, and the service was then in the process of remaking its image, and attract new recruits.
First aired in 1973, starring Vyacheslav Tikhonov as the lead, it was a black and white classic telling the story of Standartenfuhrer (SS) Max Oto Von Stierlitz, as he gathers information about Germany and its war effort. On the first episode, he is given the mission to find out who among the Nazi’s higher-ups were engaging in brokering peace with the western Allies (Operation Sunrise / Crossword), who’re swiftly coming in to bring the powers of the proletariat to Germany. Stierlitz does his work mainly by interacting with various people, all the while engaged in a battle of wits with Heinrich Muller, who seeks expose his activities. Stierlitz is actually a KGB operative, whose real name is Col. Maxim Maximovich Isaev, known “only to the highest officials” in Moscow. The show deals with the last weeks of the war, prior to the Red Army entering Berlin.
While the show isn’t exactly action oriented as James Bond is, it shows the main character engaging in classic acts of espionage, gathering intelligence rather than seducing helpless women for it, communicating via period correct methods (coded instructions via a numbers station) along with the use of fellow saboteurs, and unwitting sympathizers. There are also quite a bit of inconsistencies with the show – for example, Stierlitz is frequently seen smoking, something that the Fuhrer would’ve found unacceptable. Also, SS soldiers dressed in green, the SS shown on the series wore black. Stierlitz also relied more on wits, was low key in his affairs and didn’t have a bazillion gadgets on him, a complete polar opposite of the flashy, gadget-y James Bond.
However, there were wonderful pieces of period correct stuff shown, especially in the first episode. Kaltenbrunner and Schellenberg are shown watching various newsreels, the last of which was “Die Deutsche Wocheschau”, which was narrated by the iconic Harry Giese, for which I fondly remember commenting on a shown torpedo launch : “Aktivan, torpedo!”. One just has to watch this on Youtube to truly relish in the general awesomeness that Giese narrated in his iconic ‘rat-tat-tat’ style.
In addition to the awesome film work, and plot, the show also showcased an awesome sound track. The opening and closing themes, sung by Joseph Kobzon, have become Russian classics. Pieces of music on piano lend to the very somber feel of the series, and even the opening / closing themes have numerous interpretations available on Youtube.
I have yet to find a copy of the book, and read it. By most accounts though, the TV series was pretty faithful to how the story unfolded in the novel. I do not remember how, or where I discovered this show, much less did I know about Russian television. However, it is described to be one of the most popular TV shows during the Soviet Union’s time, and is still being aired annually during Victory Day, as part of the festive atmosphere. It continues to be popular, then and now, and Stierlitz entered colloquial usage in the form of “Stierlitz jokes” that are very popular in Russia. The original series in 1973 was shown in black and white, subsequent airings were colored. I found 7 complete episodes, all wholly in Russian which totally appeals to my inner hipster, with perfectly understandable subs. I have yet to get my hands on the last 5 episodes, a task I’d been putting off for the past couple of years. I found a DVD set being sold on Amazon, but they do not ship to the Philippines, and I have yet to find a way to order and get it shipped here. For now, I have to finish my downloads and close the book on this for good.
If you’re looking for a spy show out of the ordinary, away from James Bond and other western shit, this is it. It also provides great insight into the collective Soviet subconscious during the Cold War, drawing allusions between Nazi Germany and the then ruling CCCP.