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Thursday 16 August 2018

Tracking Edith, Documentary Film Austria 2017, written and directed by Peter Stefan Jungk, 9* out of 10, seen at JW3 Cinema in London

Combining cultural, social and political aspects of European history of the 20th century, Peter Stefan Jungk presents a beautifully crafted, meticulously researched and highly entertaining documentary about his aunt, the Viennese-born socialist photographer and devastatingly effective Soviet spy Edith Tudor-Hart.  

The subject of her great-nephew Peter Stefan Jungk’s documentary is Edith Tudor – Hart née Suschitzky (1908 -1977). Born in Vienna to a highly educated atheist and social democratic Jewish family, she became a kindergarten teacher trained personally by the educationalist Maria Montessori, then a talented photographer and one of the most devastatingly successful spies the Soviet Union ever had. 

With her Rolleiflex camera, she documented the lives of the working classes in interwar Austria, moved her domicile to the UK and trained her camera on the working classes of London and the Welsh Rhonda Valley. 

Edith’s turbulent emotional life included a marriage with the English surgeon John Tudor – Hart who left his family for Edith and, in turn, left Edith and her new-born son for the Spanish civil war. Later, when her son develops autism and is treated by the renowned child psychiatrist David Winnicott, she also has an affair with him. 

The big family secret Peter Stefan Jungk uncovers about his aunt is that she was one of the most effective spies the Soviet Union ever had. In Vienna, she had had a relationship with spy handler Arnold Deutsch. This was at the origin of the crucial role she would later play in the recruitment of the “Cambridge 5”, a group of 5 Cambridge University graduates, including Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean who were all part of the most devastatingly successful spy-network of the Cold War period at the highest echelons of British society.

Based on Jungk’s excellent book, The Dark Rooms of Edith Tudor – Hart, Tracking Edith is a beautifully researched and crafted documentary, combining cultural, social and political aspects of European history of the 20th century. Jungk’s interviews with relevant experts and family members are an object lesson of a quiet, subtle and sometimes humorous style that makes his interviewees comfortable. Three of the members of the Suschitzky family interviewed by Jungk are renowned cinematographers. Perhaps there is a cinematography-gene in the Suschitzky family which would explain the beautifully inventive cinematography that brings Edith’s photographs to life and includes the use of animation. All this contributes to making Tracking Edith a most interesting, thought-provoking and suspenseful documentary about this multi-talented, idealistic and practical woman. Edith Tudor -Hart combined strong political convictions, great artistic skills, a naïve enthusiasm for Stalin’s Soviet Union, a surprisingly modern attitude to sexual relationships and the ability to face the challenges of everyday life with a special talent for the practical aspects of espionage. 

It is not easy to do justice to such a multi-faceted life in a single documentary. Tracking Edith succeeds handsomely, is informative and entertaining and thought-provoking. Highly recommended.

Edith Tudor - Hart

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Licht (Mademoiselle Paradis), Film, Austria (2017), screenplay by Kathrin Resetarits directed by Barbara Albert, Jerusalem Film Festival, 9* out of 10

Based on true events, Mademoiselle Paradis is a beautifully observed psychological drama playing in 18th century Vienna, yet highly relevant for our time. Maria Dragus shines in the title role.

Vienna 1777. Maria Theresia Paradis (Maria Dragus) who was suddenly blinded as a young child has at the age of 18 obtained a stipend from Empress Maria Theresia of Austria due to her talent as a concert pianist. Her concerts are attended by Viennese society who love the spectacle of beautiful concerts being given by a blind girl. The young pianist’s parents Josef Anton (Lukas Miko) and Maria Rosalia (Katja Kolm) manage their daughter’s career. The Paradis family’s social position in Viennese society can only be maintained due to the dotage and stipend the young girl receives from the Empress. The controversial German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (Devid Striesow) who experiments with unusual therapies (magnetism, laying on of hands, talking therapies) is also in Vienna. He is married to Anna Maria von Posch (Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg), a wealthy Viennese widow. Their house contains a sanatorium for people who have been given up or in fact ruined by the traditional medicine of the time. With his research and therapies, Mesmer seeks to gain acceptance in the scientific circles of Vienna, who are highly sceptical of his innovative ideas. When the parents of Mlle. Paradis bring her daughter to Mesmer and he manages to achieve some progress with restoring sight, he hopes that she will become his ticket to scientific recognition. As her sight improves the young girl begins to gain confidence and stands up to her parents and the relationship between her parents and Mesmer deteriorates. Moreover, as Maria Theresia’s sight appears to improve she begins to lose part of the virtuosity on the piano, on which the family depends.

Kathrin Resetarits has skilfully adapted the excellent novel Mesmerized (Am Anfang war die Nacht Musik) by Alissa Walser which is based on true events. Under Barbara Albert’s excellent direction Mademoiselle Paradis is a beautifully observed psychological drama that provides an insight into different strata of Viennese society, focusing on the vulnerable position of women, without ever straying from telling a suspenseful story full of socio-psychological drama. On the surface Mademoiselle Paradis looks like an historical costume drama and the costumes and photography evoking the Vienna between Baroque and Enlightenment are of a high order, the story of a talented person finding herself being pulled in all directions their entourage and their public is as relevant today as it was then. Screenplay, direction, cinematography and ensemble acting are at a consistently high level of achievement throughout and fit together beautifully and even at this high level, Maria Dragus performance as Maria Theresia Paradis stands out.

Made by talented women, to be enjoyed by both men, women and any other gender, Mademoiselle Paradis is an outstanding psychological thriller in an historical setting. Highly recommended.