In the West, we’re used to seeing images of British and American spies fighting the Cold War, from the glamour of James Bond to the melancholy of John Le Carré’s George Smiley to the violence of Atomic Blonde (2107). In their films, their opposite numbers behind the Iron Curtain range from deadly foes to friendly competitors, but are almost always either sour villains or dour foils to ‘our’ ostensible heroes. And for the most part they’re Sovjets, from the other side of the world or continent.
Not so in the spy movies actually made behind that same Iron Curtain. For instance, in Zbynek Brynych’s Czechoslovakian film Skid (1960), it’s German infiltrators assisted by Americans and their national cohorts who are presented as the problem. In fact, national identity and nationalism as defined by loyalty to the Communist regime are fare more important factors than global espionage concerns. Tonally Skid does resemble the spy fiction of John Le Carré, with a similar sense of melancholy and world weariness.
In Skid, Franz Konig enters his home country for the first time since disappearing from home during the Second World War. His home city of Prague is introduced by image of its neon lit night life, over which the Peter Gunn theme music plays. Why worry about copyright laws from the decadent West? Konig is introduced as part of that night life, in a strip club. We get the first of several flashbacks to war time Prague.
In that past, before he disappeared, Konig had a different name and face (through reconstructive surgery after an ‘accident’), Václav Král. He picks up a prostitute, only to hit her and berate her, saying that her line of work is a betrayal of all the young men dying in the resistance against the German occupation. When she retorts that there’s no other way for her to make money in current times, he suggest espionage, his own line of work. She proceeds to hit him back, with the retort that her work is much more honest than his. This assessment of espionage as a duplicitous, treacherous business permeates throughout the film. At the same time it’s a lonely and sad profession in which Konig/Král loses his identity and perhaps even his soul.
The presentation of these flashbacks is quite unique. When a scene from the past is inserted in the present narrative, the screen is reduced from a widescreen image to an almost square image. In the square, we see the flashback. But on the left and right of the flashback we still see background images from the present. This techique isn’t just a weird formal experiment. It grounds these memories of the past in the present, by constantly placing us in both times at the same time. And makes clear how much Konig’s present is haunted by Král’s past.
As his cover Konig enters Prague as part of a travelling circus. He’s a sad clown, assisting a famous old clown and his daughter. An apt metaphor for his feelings. Konig falls for the daughter, but is unable to share his troubles or his real identity with her. Later it turns out Král left behind a wife, son, parents and siblings – one of whom married his wife in his abscense – when he disappeared during the war. Similarly, he longs to reconnect with them, but is unable to do so since they literally can’t see him for who he is.
Král’s Czech identity from before has first been hidden and then subsumed by his German identity as Konig. We never learn what exactly happened in the war that forced him to leave his home country and identity behind. What’s clear is that it had something to do with his espionage work against the German occupation, even though 15 years later he is only able to finally re-enter his home country through a false identity as part of the same espionage work.
While he still considers himself a patriot fighting for his country oppressed by an enemy regime, he’s presented as a man out of step with the times and with reality. This is where the Communist propaganda comes in. His only Czech colleague of note is a man who lost his property and riches to Communist ideals, and thus wants to bring it down for personal reasons/gain. Král however is a man who fights for wrong, bygone ideals, who is mistaken about the present and therefore fails to be a real Czech. Doesn’t he know every year Czechoslovakia has been doing better than the previous year? Or so’s the claim in dialogue.
When Král’s cover has been blown and both his love interest and family know who he really is, they reject him, both for leaving in the past and for lying in the present, while the manhunt is opened by the authority’s for both past and present crimes. And thus, he cannot be part of the new collective of Chechoslovakian people who have accepted or represent the Communist regime as the new way of life and the future. This makes him a tragic figure, lost in time and place. A far cry from James Bond keeping up the British Empire, but in a way equally propagandistic. Notably, in Skid the Cold War is very much framed as a consequence of the Second World War, while in most Western spy films it’s an entity entirely onto itself.