Seventeen Moments of Spring (Tatyana Lioznova, 1973)

Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions.  Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.

Eclipse LogoVirtually unknown in the West, Tatyana Lioznova’s 12-part mini-series Seventeen Moments of Spring is Russia’s most popular and acclaimed TV production, playing annually to millions of viewers since its release in 1973.  Soviet spy Maxim Isaev (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), working in deep cover as a prominent SS officer named Max Otto von Stierlitz, receives direction from Moscow in February 1945 to gather information on peace talks rumored between the Americans and Nazis and frustrate any efforts that might allow the Germans to focus all their military power to the Eastern Front.  What follows is a complicated battle of wits set within the Nazi administration with mortal consequences for Stierlitz and all of the USSR.  This methodically suspenseful and widely successful espionage thriller celebrates the Russian war effort during World War II, valorizes the nation’s security agencies through the patriotic and canny Stierlitz, and subtly critiques Soviet bureaucratic authority in an era of thawing Cold War relations.

Includes the original version and the 2009 colorized version, with notes by historian Stephen Lovell.

Tatyana Lioznova’s television mini-series, Seventeen Moments of Spring, is a tense, 14-hour game of cat-and-mouse within the Nazi war machine in the closing days of World War II.  Colonel Maxim Isaev (Vyacheslav Tikhonov) is a Soviet agent ensconced for over a decade within the German military as SS Standartenführer Stierlitz with the Ausland-SD, a civilian foreign intelligence agency.  Stierlitz is advised of rumours that peace negotiations are ongoing between the Nazis and Western Allies, and is tasked with obtaining further details and destabilizing these talks, as the USSR is winning the Eastern Front and fears the Germans might consolidate their forces if its western campaign is resolved.  Stierlitz sets upon his mission, recruiting agents to work on his behalf and making investigations within Nazi headquarters, but a chance airstrike destroys his line of communication back to Moscow and makes Stierlitz a figure of suspicion.  Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller (Leonid Bronevoy) is the Russian agent’s greatest threat, a dogged and clever officer specifically assigned to ferret out Stierlitz’s game.  Stierlitz relies on his knowledge of the paranoia, defeatism, and competition between the various factions and departments of the Nazi regime to complete his mission and protect his comrades, which includes the pregnant wife of his radio operator (Yekaterina Gradova).  All told, Seventeen Moments of Spring is a harrowing example of office politics with life and death consequences.

Lioznova TikhonovSeventeen Moments of Spring has the benefit of an interesting history.  In a effort to rehabilitate the image of the State Security Agency, its chairman, Yuri Andropov, encouraged artistic works that cast the KGB in positive lights, resulting in author Yulian Semyonov penning two popular espionage novels and writing a third that would be fast-tracked into a television series before its publication.  That project, Seventeen Moments of Spring, was originally a Lenfilm production, but director Tatyana Lioznova so wanted the project after having read an excerpt of the novel in a magazine that she convinced the Chairman of the State Committee for Television and Radio to allow her to assume control over the project and move it to the Gorky Studio.  Lioznova expanded female roles and was responsible for some of the series’ most iconic scenes, most notably a six-minute long, wordless meeting between Stierlitz and his wife that manages to beautifully express both the Russian spy’s love for his spouse and his commitment to his duty.  Shooting mainly took place in East German Berlin and the Gorky Film Studio in Moscow, with Riga doubling as Bern, Switzerland, and the mountains near Tbilisi standing in for the Alps.  Originally airing each episode in sequence over 12 nights between August 11 and 24, 1973, Seventeen Moments of Spring was a massive success, with each episode gathering between 50 and 80 million Russian viewers and emptying city streets.  Since then, broadcasts of the mini-series has become an annual tradition each Victory Day, commemorating the capitulation of the Germans on the Eastern Front and closing the USSR’s Great Patriotic War, and figures like Stierlitz and Muller has become part of the daily culture of Russian citizens.

For all the complexity that exists in the plot of Seventeen Moments of Spring, the program is remarkably unhurried.  Its contemplative, methodical approach, depicting each of its characters wrestling with every deduction and strategizing through all their moves, is nearly Bressonian in its deliberacy.  Loiznova’s miniseries builds documentary-like tension, utilizing an austerity that avoids overstatement and mawkishness, and depicts a world of creeping defeatism, where Hitler and Stierlitz seem to be the only members of the Nazi Party who believe German victory is still attainable.  Like Fontaine in A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956), Stierlitz’s efforts are arresting in their dedication and fearlessness.  Yet, despite the precision of its narrative and the great earnestness and compassion that roots Stierlitz, Seventeen Moments of Spring often lacks the well-defined interiority of Bresson.  The series frequently moves beyond its protagonist (particularly in the earlier episodes) to represent scenes involving other characters and asides recounting the progress of the Eastern Front using actual war footage (inserted at the request of Russian military authorities concerned that the program might lead to the mistaken belief that the war was won by a select group of spies rather than scores of soldiers) and conveying meaningless file information and Party assessments of relevant Nazis.  Even the voiceover narration explaining Stierlitz’s analyses and concerns, as well as the advance of the Soviet army on Berlin, is told in the past-tense and in the third-person with voice of God-like authority, loading the mini-series with an impassively doomed atmosphere.  Lioznova’s marriage of interior and exterior perspectives consistently enhances the dangerously realistic and bravely heroic exploits of Stierlitz, making Seventeen Moments of Spring an expertly constructed and highly rewarding tale of espionage.

The immense popularity of Seventeen Moments of Spring amongst its native audience is another fascinating component to the mini-series.  For many, particularly amongst the military and intelligence officials that commissioned and approved of the project, the efforts of Stierlitz mark a level of sacrifice and patriotism comparable to the national sacrifice made by the USSR during WWII, hence its frequent airing each Victory Day.  However the series was released in the era of détente and Ostpolitik, and Seventeen Moments of Spring is also considered a progressive statement against bureaucratic oppression and Soviet tyranny.  As Greg Afingenov suggests, one could easily “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.”  Afingenov suggests bureaucracy is portrayed as a world of moral compromise in the TV program, being necessarily impersonal and harshly pragmatic, and potentially characterizing Stierlitz’s success a tragic triumph of one bureaucracy over another, but the more significant aspect to the series’ timeliness and its embrace by younger audiences is Stierlitz’s role as something of a romantic figure set against impersonal system.  Stierlitz hides his brilliant nature and his moral identity to accommodate the harsh environment he occupies, a situation comparable to that of many young intellectuals living in the USSR of the 1970s and that remained identifiable as further liberalization proceeded and ideologies thawed in the years to follow.  As such, Seventeen Moments of Spring functions as both anthem and satire, ensuring its iconic status and longevity.

Seventeen Moments of Spring has previously been released in some DVD editions, although most (if not all) appear to be out of print.  Further, none have included the highly controversial colourized and slightly truncated edition of the mini-series created in 2009 (which looks good to us and not as if Stierlitz “got addicted to a tanning salon”).  While nearly 24 hours of viewing might make for a more sizable Eclipse set than offered by the Criterion Collection thus far, Seventeen Moments of Spring is an excellent selection as it stands as the universally recognized high watermark for Soviet television.  For possible packaging, we like a maroon and parchment grey colour scheme.

Credits:  Stephen Lovell was chosen to prepare liner notes for the set given his expertise in Soviet and Russian culture and his essay “In Search of an Ending: Seventeen Moments and the Seventies” appearing in Anne E. Gorsuch and Diane P. Koenker’s The Socialist Sixties: Crossing Borders in the Second World.  We also owe thanks to Greg Afinogenov’s “A Portrait of Bureaucracy in Twelve Parts; Seventeen Moments” and Anna Malpas’s “In the Spotlight: ’17 Moments of Spring.'”

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