Under the Mask


In Breach, playing the traitor Robert Hanssen, Chris Cooper looks and behaves like all of Graham Greene’s tormented Catholic heroes rolled into one: the compressed lips and narrowed eyes that accuse and self-accuse; the slightly stooping but decisive stride signaling that guilt may be a burden but doesn’t get in the way of action; the jesuitical scrupulosity that can be, by turns, warmly paternal and coldly interrogative; the secret vices that no longer give illicit pleasures but are retained as just so many hair shirts; the utter spiritual exhaustion of a burnt-out case. Whatever research the actor did has been absorbed into his bones. Before the movie is half over, you know two things: Hanssen’s spirit is in an advanced state of corrosion, and you long to know everything there is to know about this guy.

Well, keep longing. The scriptwriters Adam Mazer and William Rotko and director Billy Ray cunningly keep you from knowing anything for certain about Hanssen, the FBI computer designer and Kremlinologist who may have perpetrated the worst intelligence breach in U.S. history. You see the traitor strictly through the eyes of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), the young Fed assigned to bring Hanssen down, and what O’Neill sees are a series of paradoxical surfaces. Hanssen is a devout, even fanatical Catholic and he feeds information to godless Communists. He scorns money and takes blood money. He preaches the necessity of wholesome family values and secretly videotapes his sexual congress with his wife; he watches pornography and strippers but (apparently) stops short of adultery. Scorning protocol and office politics, he seethes with resentment at colleagues who have risen through politicking. You aren’t given admittance to the inner chambers of Hanssen’s soul but are left in a dim vestibule with sinister décor to ponder the interesting noises and murmurs coming from the other side of a very thick wall. This tickling of your curiosity provokes you into assembling your own psychological profile and making your own conclusions about Hanssen once the movie is over.

Which I now proceed to do. In the climactic scene, when O’Neill, trying not to get shot by the suspicious traitor, exclaims, “Why would I spy on you? You don’t matter that much,” Hanssen lowers the gun and growls, “I matter plenty.” It’s a climactic moment that suggests Hanssen wasn’t betraying his country for money, revenge, or notoriety, but simply to feel the weight of his own actions. And did he feel his treachery to be evil? Of course. His sincere Catholicism instructed him that his betrayals were completely evil. But the evil contributed to the weight. Chris Cooper’s Hanssen is a latter-day brother of Milton’s Satan: better to rule in a traitor’s hell than to serve in a corporate heaven.

At one point, O’Neill gives up hunting for motivation and says, “You are what you are. The why doesn’t mean anything.” Hanssen himself repeats this line near the conclusion, but I don’t think the filmmakers buy this at all, since the whole point of the film is to invite us to speculate about Hanssen’s motivations.

To tease rather than probe might not be the mark of a great movie, but you will enjoy Breach. And the owner of the bar or café where you and your companions sit to discuss Hanssen’s motivations far, far into the night will be delighted with the tab you run up.

Wiesler, the cold, pathetic creep who somehow becomes a true hero in the Academy Award-winning German film The Lives of Others, is every bit as unfathomable as Hanssen, but his creator, writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (you have to be talented to live up to a name like that), certifies mystery the old-fashioned way. He gives the audience every fact it needs to understand why this East German Stasi surveillance agent of the 1980s acts the way he does. Still, no one in the film or in the audience will ever completely understand what makes Wiesler tick. And this unknowability isn’t a tease; it is of the character’s essence. After seeing Breach we may feel that Hanssen could be understood if he were to make a full confession or if a good psychiatrist went to work on his head. But Wiesler--who puts a black mark against his student’s name for saying torture seems uncivilized; who approaches a theater seat with suspicion, as though it were wired; who stares at a great actress with the adoring eyes of a besotted fan; who eats his TV dinner in an apartment devoid of any human idiosyncrasy; who refuses to eat with his professional peers in the state cafeteria but only with the lower ranks, remarking that “socialism must start somewhere”; who comes close to tears just because the prostitute who’s just serviced him leaves a tad early for another client--no, there is no way we can comprehend Wiesler. If we could, it would be a black mark against this superb movie.

The premise of the story is as simple as its unfolding is complex. In East Berlin, a Party bigwig lusts after Christa-Maria, the star of a repertory theater that performs the plays of her lover, Georg Dreyman, who is apparently the only talented writer left in the country who has not offended the authorities. But the bigwig wants Christa-Maria all to himself and so orders Wiesler’s boss to find something, anything, that will put his rival out of the way. Wiesler goes to work with his usual antiseptic efficiency, at first finding nothing but also discovering that the playwright has something in common with himself: they’re both Communist idealists who know that the Communist Party is the rabid enemy of Communist idealism. Wiesler, going against every ferret-instinct in his nervous system, starts to use his surveillance techniques to shield Dreyman.

At this point I thought, “Yeah, yeah. So now Wiesler saves the lovers and sacrifices himself. End of story.” But the movie crossed me up. Yes, redemption is at hand but human deviousness and tortuousness keep it at bay. Wiesler has instructed his students that the prime duty of a surveillance operator is to “know everything,” but no one in this film can know everything about a loved one or an enemy or an intended prey. Whether you’re trying to save someone or do him in, he’s got his own agenda.

And how can you encompass the lives of others when you can’t comprehend your own motives? At one point, muttering, “Time for some bitter truths,” Wiesler tricks Dreyman into discovering that Christa-Maria is having sex with the lecherous bureaucrat in order to protect her lover. Why does Wiesler do this at the very moment when he’s beginning to admire the writer? Out of jealousy since he too is falling for the actress? Because Wiesler is trying to snuff out his more decent instincts and wants to provoke Dreyman into Party disloyalty? Because he simply has a fanatical impulse to reveal the truth about any situation? Can Wiesler himself account for his actions?

Gray-blue cinematography infuses the film with a sad dinginess. Not a single composition is striking in itself, yet how much emotional knowledge is imparted by the way one particular shot follows another. For instance, we see the wiretapping Wiesler in the attic over Dreyman’s flat, leaning so far sideways as he listens in on the lovers conversing after lovemaking that he ends up horizontal on the floor; the very next shot shows the playwright and the actress horizontal on the bed, and composition of this shot mimics the preceding one. With one simple edit, envy and empathy, voyeurism and neediness are all conveyed.

As Christa-Maria, Martina Gedeck gives us the sensuous, poised confidence of a great actress and then shows that confidence being worm-eaten by the compromises imposed by a totalitarian state. Playing Dreyman, Sebastian Koch lets his face become a kind of battlefield, the eyes bravely staring out at a hostile world while tiny twitches of the lips and cheeks reveal the very fear that needs such courage to counter it. As the state minister whose lust starts all the trouble, Thomas Thierne is Göring-like in his playful menace and laid-back arrogance.

And Wiesler? Ulrich Mühe’s performance is the lynchpin of the movie. He has the eyes of a dead fish embedded in a face unexercised by emotion, yet Mühe somehow signals to us that emotions are at work under the mask. This incorruptible Robespierre, gratifyingly corrupted by longing, becomes a figure of hope. If Wiesler can be redeemed, so can any of us.

Related: The Cold War on Ice, by John Rodden

Published in the 2007-04-06 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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