Right off the bat, For Eyes Only – Top Secret lets you know that this is not going to be a James Bond, sex and martinis fantasy. A title card appears after the credits, stating that, while the film’s plot is fictional, “similarities to actual events and real people are intended.” The events and people they are referring to are DECO II—a plan by the United States and West Germany to reunite Germany by fomenting uprisings in East Germany and then bringing in western troops—and the exploits of Horst Hesse, a Stasi agent who infiltrated the U.S. Military Intelligence Division (MID) and came back across the border with two safes filled with information on every MID agent working in East Germany as well as an emergency plan called Schweigefunker, that was to be activated in case of war. As a result of Hesse’s spy work, 521 MID agents were exposed, and 137 secret agents in working in East Germany were arrested. The U.S. Military, embarrassed and caught with their pants down, sentenced Hesse to death in absentia. After the wall fell, apparently the threat was forgotten. The emergency invasion plan turned out to be a smokescreen by GDR officials to help justify the building of the wall. This fact was kept from both the public and Horst Hesse himself, who only found out the truth after the wall fell. Hesse lived unmolested to the ripe old age of 84, and died in the town of Schwedt, across the border from Poland.
For Eyes Only is set in June of 1961, a little over a month before the Berlin Wall went up. The border is still relatively porous, and secret agents cross into each others countries with relative ease. Although it is never said outright, it is obvious that one of the subtexts of the film is that the U.S. was constantly engaged in intentional sabotage in East Germany and that the wall put an end to this (for more on this, see Look at This City!). For Eyes Only is an effective thriller with good performances and an exciting conclusion. It ranks as one of the best spy films of the sixties.
Several of the main characters in the film are Americans and speak English during their meetings. Rather than subtitle these scenes, the film uses the technique of overdubbing a translator’s voice in the fashion used by NPR and European news broadcasts. This serves two purposes: It eliminates the need for distracting subtitles, and effectively masks any obvious English dubbing, or giveaway accents. It also gives the film a slight documentary feel absent from other spy film of the period. Not all of the Americans in the film are German, however. Canadian folksinger Perry Friedman, American journalist Victor Grossman, and British journalist John Peet all appear in the movie without credit.
The hero of the film is Hansen, an East German spy who supposedly joined the Republikflucht to escape the GDR, but who, in fact, is a double agent named Lorenz. As one might expect, the Americans are portrayed as hedonistic louts, who drive too fast, and whose radio stations seem to play nothing but jazzy versions of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” To the film’s credit, though, they are not portrayed as bumbling idiots. It takes a great deal of guile for Hansen to outwit Major Collins, even if the man does have trouble keeping his pants zipped. It is these high stakes that keep the film exciting. Hansen may be one step ahead of the Americans, but only one step, and sometimes that is barely enough.
At times it seems like everyone in the film—not just Hansen—is leading a double life, from Major Collins and his evening peccadilloes, to pretty Peggy (Eva-Maria Hagen), the American secretary who keeps a set of falsies in her desk to wear on dates. The only person without secrets is Gisela (Renate Geißler, in her first film role), the attractive gas station attendant who dates the conflicted Czech chauffeur, František. She is also the one person with enough sense to walk away from the situation when she realizes she has been lied to.
Hansen is portrayed by Alfred Müller, an actor who, up to that point, had primarily worked in theater. His portrayal of Hansen here was so popular that he became known as the “James Bond of the East.” He probably would have made an even bigger splash as the morally conflicted judge in The Rabbit is Me if that film hadn’t been shelved as a result of the 11th Plenum. Happily, neither the 11th Plenum, nor the Wende had much impact on his career. He continued to work in films throughout his life, retiring in 2007 and dying in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.
The randy Major Collins is played by Helmut Schreiber, one of the hardest working men in East German cinema. Schreiber appeared in dozens of films and television shows, He was often cast as a villain, especially in the Märchenfilmen and Indianerfilmen. Like most character actors, his face was better known than his name. He was reaching retirement age when the wall fell, and did not appear in any more films after the Wende.
For Eyes Only was directed by János Veiczi, a Hungarian director who had a hard-scrabble life, working at forced labor in a munitions factory during World War II, and doing whatever jobs he could to support his ailing wife after the war. Responding to an ad in 1949 for people to work at DEFA, Veiczi became an assistant director, working with several talented directors, including Gerhard Klein and Carl Ballhaus. In 1956, he began directing his own features, starting with Zwischenfall in Benderath (Incident in Benderath). With the success of For Eyes Only, Veiczi was given carte blanche to make another spy movie. That film, Die gefrorenen Blitze, (Frozen Flashes), was the most expensive DEFA made up to that point. While not a flop, it did not match For Eyes Only at the box office. Veiczi moved to television at that point with the 11-part mini-series, Rendezvous mit Unbekannt (Rendezvous with the Unknown), a collection of stories taken from actual Stasi files.
For Eyes Only grabs you right from the opening titles thanks to a nice pop-jazz score by Günter Hauk. Hauk was a classically trained musician, who got his start as musical director at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater. His stage compositions include, among others, the music for the stage version of Around the World in 80 Days, which is reportedly where János Veiczi saw Alfred Müller, and decided to cast him as Hansen. Hauk became Veiczi’s go-to composer for his spy films, writing the scores for Die gefrorenen Blitze and Rendezvous mit Unbekannt. Besides For Eyes Only, he is best known for the score for The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs. Hauk died in 1979.
For Eyes Only opened in July of 1963, nine-and-a-half months after Dr. No premiered in London. At the time, some thought the East German film was a response to the British film’s glamorous portrayal of the life of a secret agent, but DEFA had been preparing the film for at least two years before its release. Actually, the two films are as different as chalk and cheese. The British wouldn’t follow suit with anything this realistic until The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965. The DEFA film was extremely popular in East Germany. In spite of its Anti-American stance—or perhaps, because of it—the film was also well received in West Germany, where NATO’s plan to pepper their country with nuclear weapons (MC 96) was not particularly popular.
For Eyes Only is the latest DVD to be released in the United States by the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst. The DVD includes an East German documentary short in which Horst Hesse is interviewed based on the film, plus two PDF files containing an interview with the film’s dramaturg, and an essay by the University of Potsdam professor Bernd Stöver about the film’s veracity.