Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in the forthcoming biopic “The Theory of Everything”.
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The lure of the biopic: the best of an ever-popular film format

Cinemas are going to be full of biopics in the next couple of months – in preparation, Ryan Gilbey picks the best examples of the form from the past few years.

Biopics have always been with us and they always will: the lure of inbuilt audience familiarity, coupled with a ready-made narrative structure, amounts to a gift-horse that no sane producer would look in the mouth for very long. With numerous examples of the genre either in cinemas now (The Imitation Game, Get On Up) or released in the next month (including Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, about the Olympic athlete turned Second World War PoW Louis Zamperini, and The Theory of Everything, which focuses on the early years of Stephen Hawking), here is a selection of recent stand-out biopics which took a chance and did something innovative with the form:

Gainsbourg (2010)

Just after the animated opening credits in which Serge Gainsbourg swims among chain-smoking fish, but before he is menaced by a four-armed anti-Semitic caricature which has torn itself from a Nazi propaganda poster, it strikes you that this may not be your run-of-the-mill biopic.

Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1994)

A masterpiece among modern biopics, François Girard’s glancing, fragmented approach about the genius pianist avoids all the pitfalls of the genre. “The main temptation is to try to cram everything about a life into one film,” he said. “What you need is a radical idea or perspective; if you decide to show the whole journey, you’re condemning yourself to staying only on the surface. Evocation, rather than being descriptive or exhaustive, is the key. Evoking a territory is preferable to trying to cover it all.”

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

Todd Haynes has been drawn repeatedly to the musical biopic but his preference is to hide in plain sight: his Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not There, features lots of Dylan music and six vastly dissimilar actors as the musician at different stages of his career, but never mentions its subject by name, while Velvet Goldmine has characters modelled on David Bowie, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop. His 43-minute imaginative essay on the Carpenters singer who died of anorexia is more upfront, though no more conventional – it has a cast of Barbie dolls, as well as digressions into the effect of the rise of kitchen appliances on appetite and consumerism.

Cobb (1994)

Ron Shelton’s largely straight-shooting biopic departs from reality notably and brilliantly when the baseball outfielder Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) is watching a montage of his career highlights at a Hall of Fame dinner. While the other guests applaud his sporting triumphs, Cobb can see only a showreel of lowlights from his violent, alcohol-fuelled rages.

Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Paul Schrader’s impressionistic portrait of the life and death of the novelist Yukio Mishima views its subject’s life through the prism of his art, foreshadowing the technique used in Love is the Devil (John Maybury’s film about Francis Bacon starring Derek Jacobi and Daniel Craig) and the underrated Kafka (by Steven Soderbergh).

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Part of a new movement – the faux-biopic – which seeks to get at the essence of truth through a tissue of lies. Shadow of the Vampire proposes that the actor Max Schreck, played here by Willem Dafoe, didn’t have to put in too much research to play a bloodsucker in F W Murnau’s Nosferatu since he was, in reality, a vampire himself. This fast-and-loose irreverence, which has its roots in Ken Russell’s bad-taste 1970s biopics such as Savage Messiah and Lisztomania!, can also be found in the completely fictitious Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.

24-Hour Party People (2002)

Frank Cottrell Boyce has a wealth of biopics to his name, including films about Jacqueline du Pré (Hilary and Jackie), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Saint-Ex) and Coleridge and Wordsworth (Pandaemonium). 24-Hour Party People is his cleverest, notable for a scattershot structure befitting its subject (Manchester’s Factory Records), and a heightened self-awareness dictated by its hero, the late Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan). Typical of its flagged-up fabrications and post-modern tomfoolery is the moment when Howard Devoto (of Buzzcocks and Magazine) turns up to denounce as false a scene we are in the process of watching.

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