Gilbey on Film: virtual reality bites

What happens when directors venture into cyberspace?

In the week that brings the release of Tron: Legacy, the new Disney blockbuster set inside a computer system where gladiatorial combat and neon are the new big things, I read that the 87-year-old film-maker and perpetual adventurer Chris Marker has set up shop in virtual reality. The latest issue of Film Comment reports that Marker, director of La jetée, Sans Soleil and AK, has built a museum in the sky of Second Life, that virtual world where users pilot their avatars through a plasticised parallel reality in which everything seems to be the colour of sports-casual wear on a Florida golf course (at least to these Luddite eyes).

Should you wish to explore the byways of Marker's museum, make a note of these numbers: 187, 61, 39. Those are either the Second Life co-ordinates, or the bus routes that will get you where you're going. Once you've reached the museum's skywalk, writes Film Comment's Jesse P Finnegan, what awaits you inside is a "digital Xanadu . . . strewn with cat-shaped coves, roving humpbacks, a castle keep, and a downed 747 . . . secreted hidden goodies in the nooks and crannies; animated loops, ironically reimagined silent movie posters, and a snapshot of Marker's feline alter-ego, Guillaume, visiting an SL version of Lenin's tomb".

Second Life has already hosted film premieres, but the participation of someone as esteemed and rigorous as Marker brings a hint of class to an enterprise that, for many of us, has never quite shaken its connotations of Dungeons and Dragons. (Not to mention the lunacy of users paying actual money to buy virtual real estate, in an ironic reversal of the situation that precipitated the recession – that is, actual real estate bought with virtual money.) My first thought on hearing about Marker's involvement was: "Maybe Second Life isn't a waste of time after all." This was followed swiftly by: "Peter Greenaway's going to be kicking himself when he hears about this: 'What am I supposed to do with all these bloody CD-Roms?' "

It's possible that there will always be something inherently ridiculous about cinema's dalliances with the virtual realities of cyberspace. Could it be that the art form is too much a limitless virtual reality already? Any portrait of a cyber world can only seem inhibited by comparison. Look at Cocteau's Blood of a Poet, or the original 1985 version of A Nightmare on Elm Street, or the recent Coraline, or anything by Buñuel or Polanski – these films establish quickly and vividly the contours of their respective alternative existences with a formalist authority that makes, say, the Matrix sequels, or the Tron movies, seem improvised and off-the-cuff.

I've reviewed Tron: Legacy in this week's NS Christmas Special, but regardless of that film's strengths or weaknesses, it belongs to a tradition of cinematic storytelling that has to work overtime to impress and convince. Suspension of disbelief is a given when we enter a cinema – we may be handing over cash at the popcorn counter, but I always feel like I'm checking in some of my churlish everyday scepticism as well.

A double suspension is asked of us by pictures like The Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity or Disclosure (which ends with a cringe-making cyber-showdown); in those cases, the correlation between the corporeal world and its cyber stand-in is so flimsy that the stakes tend to fall to the point of being negligible.

Better for a film-maker to spike the visual excesses of these brave new worlds with scepticism. When Kathryn Bigelow, in Strange Days, or David Cronenberg, in eXistenZ, ventured into the virtual, they did so not to dazzle, but to disorientate. The worlds created in those films are unsettling yet still vaguely familiar – the ad-agency gloss of the fantasies in Strange Days, the humdrum griminess (a factory, a petrol station) of the locations in eXistenZ.

Bigelow and Cronenberg showed that virtual reality offers not an escape from our daily problems and neuroses, but a mirror in which they are magnified to new and horrific proportions.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge