Spying on screen | Apollo Magazine

Spying on screen |  Apollo Magazine

From the December 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

In ‘Top Secret’, the Cinémathèque française’s show on espionage and cinema (until May 21, 2023), I feel as if I have stepped into a scene from The conversation (1974), with the soundtrack rising to an awkward level. Reverberating throughout the space is a drone-like noise, much like the one Gene Hackman hears in Francis Ford Coppola’s Cold War classic between the clicks and voices of an illicit recording he’s listening to on loop. Listening to the sound reverberate around me, I am impressed by the lengths to which curators have gone to simulate the surveillance experience. Then, as I get a headache, I realize that maybe something else is going on. A guard laughs, putting me right: there’s a faulty speaker somewhere, and for the rest of my visit I have the drone for company and a man with a ladder checking all the electrical outlets.

Unpleasant as it is, I am glad to experience exposure under these conditions. The space on an upper floor of the Cinémathèque is densely populated and opens with an impressive collection of early technology designed for intelligence gathering, espionage or surveillance. Among the exhibits here is the Enigma machine, the encryption device used by the Germans to encrypt messages that Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park cracked in World War II. In the other rooms are movie posters, costumes, film clips, photos and various memorabilia from actual acts of espionage, including the exploding rat used by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE); also from movies, the best known being a selection of James Bond gadgets. It’s strange, even a little sad, to see them as isolated objects under glass with no Bond or Q to play with.

The show is divided into several small rooms connected by temporary walls, creating alley-style corridors that have visitors wandering as if trapped in a maze. The material is organized thematically, with a different theme for each room, but also proceeds chronologically. This is not some carefree show that only encourages escapism. Reality is always around the corner, often quite literally. Along a set of small corridors, for example, we are presented with photos, both real and artist’s, of East Germany under Stasi surveillance. This presence of real-world politics is not surprising in a show that involves espionage, but the exhibit emphasizes the role of technology in espionage and film. The curators establish the link in the first room, which is dedicated to early intelligence devices. ‘Like a spy,’ they say, ‘filmmakers use high-tech or low-tech to record or manipulate reality to tell a story.’

Although the show invites us to reflect on the relationship between humans and the state, and the limits placed on our freedom, this does not mean that we cannot enjoy the simple story of how espionage has appeared on the screen. This narrative takes us from the silent movie era to the heyday of femme fatales, such as Hedy Lamarr, who played many on-screen spies and also pioneered the technology that would form the foundation of today’s WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth. Mata Hari also features prominently, with photographs and documentation presenting her activities as a double agent who would be executed by a French firing squad. Alongside this are examples of the many incarnations she inspired, played by everyone from Greta Garbo to Sylvia Kristel.

probably chelsea

installation view of probably chelsea (2017) by Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea Manning at the Cinémathèque française in Paris. Courtesy of the French Cinematheque

The work of Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang takes us through the 1930s to the 1950s. With the 1960s, we enter the era of James Bond, who is joined by his on-screen successors from Austin Powers to Jason bourne. It’s with the latest franchise spanning five movies in the 2000s and 2010s that we see the shift to spies as techies, and what curators call ‘citizen spies’. Today, through modern computers and phones, the act of eavesdropping and going dark to escape state surveillance has become even more possible, the curators explain, and this has given rise not only to the Bourne films, but to series as well. classic TV shows like The Bureau of Legendsstarring Mathieu Kassovitz.

The final rooms are as disturbing as the previous ones are escapist, and show how citizens have faced state surveillance, risking if not their lives, then their freedom and anonymity. Here we find whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. It also shows drones and footage of targeted state attacks, like the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, reimagined by artists. Exhibits in these rooms range from the avant-garde, featuring the work of Harun Farocki, among others, to the popular, featuring the work of Kathryn Bigelow. zero thirty dark (2012).

The most striking exhibition is probably chelsea (2017), a curious work by Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea Manning. The installation comprises several very realistic masks, made from 3D prints based on the result of introducing Manning’s DNA into an algorithmic model. All the faces are doing something different: eyes looking up or directly, traces of a smile or completely serious. They are hung from the ceiling, seemingly floating in space, like puppets about to speak, and they make dove-like shadows on the floor.

Manning’s massive release of classified government documents about US military operations in Baghdad, Afghanistan, and elsewhere landed her seven years in prison; she was released in 2017. Without a doubt, she has become an emblematic figure, both as a denouncer and as a representative of the great social change in recent decades around gender identity and the breakdown of the binary categories man / woman. the probably chelsea the portraits are meant to evoke the fluid nature of identity and the battle to box Manning into one, even after she has come out as a trans woman. The relevance of all this to cinema, however, is tenuous. It’s not entirely the show’s fault, as we’re still in the early stages of understanding how modern forms of surveillance and espionage will translate to the screen.

‘Top Secret: Cinema and espionage’ is in the Cinémathèque françaiseParis, until May 21, 2023.

From the December 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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