The Spy (Spionen)

Norway (2019)  Dir. Jens Jonsson

When asked to name a famous female wartime spy, the first one to come to mind will be Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod or Mata Hari as she was better known. A much lesser known name also to enjoy this infamy is Norwegian-Swedish actress Sonja Wigert, something this film hopes to change.

1942, German occupied Norway and the most popular movie star in the country is Sonja Wigert (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), who longs to make the film Else but so far the rights are out of her hands. From being multi-lingual Wigert is popular across European borders, having caught the eye of Nazi Josef Terboven (Alexander Scheer) who can make Wigert’s film dream come true, but she has no desire to fraternise with the Nazis.

Deliberately snubbing an invitation to dinner from Terboven, Wigert is punished by her father Sigvald (Erik Hivju) being arrested for his ties with resistance groups. Learning of Terboven’s interest in Wigert, Thorsten Akrell (Rolf Lassgård) of Swedish Intelligence encourages her to ingratiate herself with Terboven and spy on the Nazis to expose a leak in Swedish Intelligence, codenamed “Maria”.

If you look at Wigert’s English Wikipedia page, it simply says she was an actress and lists a selection of her films – there is no mention of her being a spy at all, or indeed any details about her personal life. The former might not be much of a surprise as her war work wasn’t officially disclosed until 2005, but even then, someone could have updated her page after that.

Related to this point, the film opens with a voice over from Akrell, explaining this is the story of a spy named “Bill” who nobody would have heard of since their work was highly classified. He also admits that many may also have forgotten about Wigert despite her fame in the 30s and 40s, which he takes the blame for. As it transpires, Wigert’s career did nosedive after her Nazi relationships were exposed but she and her family relocated to Sweden and lived in peace there.

So, Jens Jonsson seeks to make sure Wigert’s war efforts aren’t consigned to the bins of history and everyone knows about them with The Spy. He partly succeeds but the story is so cut and dried that it can focus just on Wigert. There are far too many moving parts to it that the 105-minute run time barely suffices in giving them all substantial screen time to relate their significance and importance to the events as a whole.

At the risk of spoiling anything, when the person operating as Maria is finally revealed, it is someone who was shown for about 10 seconds in the first act and not seen again for the remainder of the film! How are we supposed to be shocked by this if we can’t even remember who they were? Granted, it’s not supposed to be obvious but the intrigue is so weak that we don’t really find ourselves even thinking about it.  

Because this is about Wigert, the focus is understandably about her risks in infiltrating and double crossing the Germans without being caught, with the occasional diversion into her family life that are all too brief, limited to mostly swift exposition. We learn Wigert was in a tempestuous marriage to a playwright which ended when she discovered his infidelity, and that her father was upset her agent also had Nazi connections.

This puts extra pressure on Wigert in keeping her job secret from everyone, leaving her family to think she had sold out to the Nazis and betrayed her country, which hurt her the most. When he is arrested, Wigert’s main concern for her father is his weak lungs; apparently not an issue when they sneak outside for a crafty ciggy! Not the first of her priorities to change during this adventure by any means.

Getting in with Terboven was easy since he also saw Wigert’s potential as the lead in the film version of Else, winning him over on a personal level and making it seem credible means delivering the best acting performance of her life. This doesn’t mean procuring information is easy, not with Terboven’s quick temper but Wigert does end up becoming his lover, relying on his deep sleeps to provide ample time to find vital information and write letters back to Akrell.

Meanwhile, Wigert has found herself temporary respite from Terboven’s Nazi stench via her secret relationship with Hungarian diplomat Andor Gellért (Damien Chapelle), who always seems to be around. Unfortunately, all of their scenes are in English with their thick accents, and not subtitled on this DVD so I wasn’t able to understand anything said between them; the sound is so bad I didn’t even realise they were speaking English!

Unfortunately, we have to wait until the third act before the pace picks up as the many double-crosses and betrayals are revealed. Prior to this, anything resembling suspense and drama is either short lived or imperceptible, quite the disappointment considering the gravity of the situation. As a result, we only really get a snapshot of the pressure and peril Wigert would have been under, along with the cleverness of “Maria”.

Jonsson is fortunate that he was able to attract such a top flight cast to this project though the script doesn’t meet the prestige aspiration their presence would bring to this film. Ingrid Bolsø Berdal is fantastic as Wigert, her transformation from carefree movie star to jaded double agent is nicely essayed, working well with every cast member. The mammoth Rolf Lassgård is at his most restrained here, yet still exudes gravitas with a hint of ambiguity for good measure.

Production values are good enough and the period is superbly recreated, but sorely missing is the danger and weight of this unusual situation. The Spy should have been a huge film given its subject, instead it is a minor one, likely to be as forgotten as Sonja Wigert and her efforts sadly were.