Two hotheads in a room

Bernardo Bertolucci returns after eight years with the invigorating "Me and You".

Bernardo Bertolucci’s latest film, Me and You, may not rank among his greatest. But a serious back injury had put the director out of action for the best part of eight years; he has even said he feared he would never work again. Now, confined to a wheelchair but in all other respects back to his old self, he has returned with his first film since 2003’s The Dreamers. Me and You is a minor work in the director’s unofficial and sporadic two-hotheads-in-a-room series. This has so far included pictures such as Last Tango in Paris and the tender, underrated Besieged. (The Dreamers, adapted from the late Gilbert Adair’s novel about May 1968, The Holy Innocents, is disqualified from inclusion by virtue of being about three hotheads in a room.)

In the new film, 14-year-old Lorenzo (played by Jacopo Olmo Antinori, who resembles a young Denis Lavant and has a fascinating face like an acne-studded trowel) hides out in the basement of his family’s home while his mother thinks he is on a skiing trip. Joining him is his half-sister, 25-year-old Olivia (Tea Falco), a heroin addict who is going cold turkey, albeit in a rather pretty fashion.

The scenario calls to mind the superior Mexican drama I’m Gonna Explode, in which two young lovers on the run turned out not to be on the run at all, but hiding out rather closer to home. Like that film, Me and You is indebted to the French New Wave—it even ends on a 400 Blows-style freeze frame of its impish hero—and hopelessly in love with its restless, aimlessly rebellious protagonists. After some playful early scenes, in which Lorenzo taunts his mother with fantasies of incest (recalling Bertolucci’s 1979 La Luna, which envisaged just such a taboo relationship), the film becomes bogged down in the basement. Lorenzo and Olivia need to be tested and challenged by the world around them, and left to their own devices they descend into solipsism.

However, Bertolucci’s fascination with them sees the film through. He finds their youthful potential palpably inspiring, as he did with Liv Tyler in the excellent late work Stealing Beauty (this is one director who never really experienced a sharp falling-off in quality). And his use of music (including The Cure and David Bowie) to express Lorenzo’s vitality is especially accomplished, as is his habit of modulating the sound to control our relationship with Lorenzo, so that sometimes we are inside the songs he is listening to on his headphones, while at other times we are excluded from them. Bertolucci’s investment in his characters, the way you can feel him rooting for them, can be invigorating in itself, even when there’s not much happening on screen. In common with Jonathan Demme or the late Eric Rohmer, his compassion is an inseparable part of his cinematic voice. Thank goodness he’s back.

Me and You is on release.

Tea Falco and Jacopo Olmo Antinori in "Me and You". Image: Fiction Films.

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