Film in 2013 - the year of DiCaprio unchained

What to look out for on the big screen this year.

Since the dawn of time, mankind has been guided through life by the passing of the seasons, the phases of the moon and the patterns of the film release schedule; 2013 is no different. There is the usual January logjam of awardsseason heavyweights: you shall know them by their extravagant length. One, Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge thriller Django Unchained (18 January), is one of three new films starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Having at last shed his formerly foetal demeanour, DiCaprio is up to the job of playing his first villain, a sadistic plan - tation owner. The actor will be a good fit, too, in the title role of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (May), opposite Carey Mulligan as Daisy. Before the year is out, he’ll be seen as the jailed stockbroker Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese. (There’s an extra DiCaprio treat: a Valentine’s Day rerelease of Luhrmann’s febrile Romeo + Juliet. A new film of the play, adapted by Julian Fellowes, follows in October.)

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Great Gatsby"

The appetite of Park Chan-wook for Jacobean excess far outstrips mine but I am looking forward to Stoker (March), the Korean director’s forthcoming horror film starring Nicole Kidman and the translucent Mia Wasikowska. Oldboy, the gruesome thriller that made Park’s name, will rise again in October in the form of Spike Lee’s US remake. Anyone fancy putting a few squid on whether its star, Josh Brolin, will replicate the original film’s unsimulated liveoctopus- eating scene?

Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in the upcoming Terrence Malik film "To the Wonder"

We can no longer look to Terrence Malick for tantalising hiatuses between projects – a mere two years after The Tree of Life, he offers To the Wonder (February), featuring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and very little dialogue, and has been shooting his next two movies simultaneously. Fortunately Wong Kar-wai is available to take up the mantle of Elusive Genius. Hopes are high for The Grandmaster, his first film in five years, starring Tony Leung as Yip Man, the martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee. The picture opens the Berlin Film Festival in February. The wait has been even longer for fans of the British director Jonathan Glazer. Nine years will have elapsed since his last film (Birth) by the time we see Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel Under the Skin. Scarlett Johansson wears a brown wig to play an extraterrestrial on a killing spree in Scotland.

Blockbusteritis prevents me from mentioning 2013’s numerous sequels. However, the film about which I am most excited is also technically a sequel, albeit a belated and idiosyncratic one. After ambling through Vienna in 1995 as twentysomethings in Before Sunrise and breezing around Paris nine years later in their thirties in Before Sunset, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) hit middle age in Greece in the conclusion to Richard Linklater’s freewheeling trilogy. One wag has pointed out that the new film’s title, Before Midnight, surely refers to the hour that Jesse and Celine have to be in bed these days.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in "Before Sunrise"

As someone the same age as the characters, I can chuckle knowingly at that. I’ll be seeing the movie – just not at a late show.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained". The actor stars in three big releases this year.

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.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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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