Funeral In Berlin

UK (1966) Dir. Guy Hamilton

Everyone’s favourite bespectacled laconic cockney secret agent is back for another death-defying mission at the behest of the Ministry of Defence, crossing international borders and unravelling a sinuous mystery that develops seemingly out of nowhere.

Bifurcated Germany is the current base of Soviet intelligence officer Colonel Stok (Oskar Homolka) who wants to defect to the UK. Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) assigns the newly promoted agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) to travel to Berlin, meet Stok and facilitate the defection. Dubious about Stok’s veracity, Palmer enlists an old pal, the head of the Berlin branch of British Intelligence, Johnny Vulkan (Paul Hubschmid) as his back up.

After meeting the eccentric Russian, Palmer is convinced Stok is genuine and agrees to help. Later at his hotel, Palmer meets German model Samantha Steel (Eva Renzi) and they spend the night together, but Palmer is vexed by her forwardness. Back in London, he expresses his concerns to Ross about Samantha, who dismisses them and sends Palmer back to Berlin. But Palmer decides to act on his hunch anyway with interesting results.

The second of three Len Deighton novels featuring the anti-James Bond Harry Palmer to be made into a film comes a year after the success of The Ipcress File and the intention to create a more sedate Bond alternative. By sedate, I refer to the absence of special gadgets and explosive set pieces, supplanted by good old fashioned sleuthing, brains, and guile to resolve whatever international incident develops.

Such pared back offerings should look comparatively moribund against Bond’s hi-tech, sexy, suave, action packed blockbusters, so it is a credit to Deighton’s involved plotting (no slight on Fleming by the way) that a story like Funeral In Berlin can keep audiences just as enrapt. Not that we should be directly comparing Palmer to Bond of course, but as a proposed alternative, we need to know where the difference lay.

Directed this time by Guy Hamilton, the film opens with a daring escape from an East Berlin work camp by a noted German pianist that is stupidly simple in its conception but deceptively genius for the same reason. It is enough to inspire Stok to want to get out of Germany to the freer climes of Britain, but as a life-long communist stuck in the Soviet Zone he is under strict surveillance.

One of Stok’s conditions is the involvement of West German criminal Otto Kreutzmann (Günter Meisner), mastermind of many escapes. Palmer meets Kreutzmann who agrees to help Stok defect for £20,000 and documents regarding a criminal named Paul Louis Broum, as well as conducting the procedure personally. The plan is smuggle Stok out of Berlin and across the border in a coffin.

However, when Palmer returns to Berlin and meets up with Samantha, he has a friend break into her flat to get info on her, discovering false passports and the name Paul Louis Broum in her diary. Samantha confesses to being an Israeli spy hunting Broum for having stolen £2 million worth of gold during World War II. Palmer tells Samantha Broum is dead but she counters he is working under an alias.

From this point, it is every liar for himself as nobody can be trusted. The problem is that some are so good at disguising the truth that even the best liars are fooled by them. It is quiet often the case that the audience either knows or has a pretty good idea who is the liar and the anticipation is in how and when they are found out. Deighton does this with only some of his characters, making it more complex by having everyone tell porkies.

Caught in the middle, yet complicit himself (as he is an agent remember), Palmer needs to figure out who he can trust, putting him at quite the disadvantage as he is required to trust a lot of people in order to weed out the fact from the fiction. In true Hitchcock style there is a McGuffin in the Boum Documents, sought after by different parties, all with orders to kill to obtain them – including Boum himself.

What makes Palmer such an interesting agent to watch is his lack of actual hands on spy work – he tends to get others to do his dirty work (as ex-criminal associates this is not a stretch for them), whilst his detective work is conducted largely in his head, leaving the viewer to wait until he has figured something out we haven’t seen or may have missed. It might sound dull, but the beauty of this show don’t tell approach puts us on an even keel with the cast who are just as unaware of what will happen next as we are.

Palmer’s biggest obstacle is Colonel Ross. Every time Palmer has something to report, Ross already seems to know about it or has vital information that would have saved a lot of time. This is even brought up by Palmer as an issue of trust but Ross simply sneers and berates his charge for not figuring it out. The impression created here is Ross is testing Palmer, who surely has proven himself by now, instead of being confident he can get the job done.

Like before, Michael Caine deadpans his way throughout the whole film, tossing off witty barbs with effortless panache regardless of who they are aimed at. With Palmer now moving up the ranks, he still hasn’t lost his earthy foundation, allowing him to remain likeable and relatable against the haughty loftiness of the likes of Ross. The black horn rimmed glasses are as much a part of his personality as his stoic demeanour, making him a quintessentially English hero.

Much less darker than its predecessor, Funeral In Berlin is a smoother ride in that regard but compensates with a story boasting more twists than Chubby Checker and more liars than parliament to keep us guessing until the very end. A suitably tense and engaging sequel.