Funeral in Berlin

A Guest Review by Martin Duffy.

The Wall holds centre stage in Funeral in Berlin, the second cinematic outing of Len Deighton’s Cockney spy Harry Palmer. Palmer, played by Michael Caine, was a spy on Her Majesty’s secret civil service. He was the reverse of the glamour of James Bond; bogged down in the grit and bureaucracy of a seedy world and obliged to provide receipts for any expenses. When a woman falls for him his first reaction (unlike Bond’s) is to have his suspicion rather than anything else aroused. The film, released in 1966, is regarded as one of the best spy films of that decade.

The film opens with a very implausible escape over the Wall and thereafter Harry is brought in from London to investigate and facilitate a senior Soviet army officer (Oscar Homolka) who wants to escape to the other side. The ‘funeral’ of the title is the handing over of a coffin, from east to west, in which the general is hidden. Movie trivia on the film reports that East German soldiers disrupted filming by using mirrors to reflect sunlight into the camera lenses. There are shots of this in the film’s opening montage.

The dialogue is razor-sharp. A throwaway gem is when the waiter comes to Harry in the Berlin bar and says; ‘bitte?’, to which Harry replies; ‘no, a brown ale, please’. The banter between Caine and Homolka is wonderful and intelligent. For someone with German and English, there’s a bit of extra fun to be had in understanding the German lines that are being thrown away in the background of various scenes. The plot is extremely complicated – which is, I suppose, as it should be with a spy thriller.

The film is interspersed with second-unit material (shot by Godfrey Godar, with whom I worked in Ireland decades ago on a re-make of ‘Black Beauty’) that shows the city still not fully recovered from the war and newly-scarred by its division. There are lots of views of the Wall, its cement (okay, I exaggerate) barely dry. Some glimpses of Berlin are breath-stopping: at one point, a car drives through a waste-land and then passes the Philharmonie and you realise; that’s Potsdamer Platz! When Harry arrives in Berlin, you see Tempelhof in its full former glory. When Harry meets up with a buddy at Hotel am Zoo on Kurfürstendamm, you see the high street in all its Sixties glory. Berlin was thriving and full of life by the mid 60s. It was such a funky place to be! My own favourite scene setting, however, is the bar with the old transvestites – that’s my Berlin! Straight (or bent) out of Otto Dix. It’s a wonderful scene played with great deadpan by Caine, who fit the role of Palmer like a glove. He also became friends with, and got on-set cooking lessons from, Len Deighton. The film is marvelously politically incorrect. In an early scene, Palmer says to a semi-clad lady friend who has made breakfast in his flat “you’re hopeless in the kitchen. Get back into bed.”

Cast: Michael Caine, Oscar Homolka, Eva Renzi. Directed by Guy Hamilton (who directed several Bond films). Music by John Barry (a one-time flat-mate of Caine).

The film is available on DVD and is, Gott sei Dank, in full widescreen format.

About the author: Martin Duffy is a storyteller; he works as a film director, writer and editor. He also writes songs and has written several novels for young people and some non-fiction books. For more information please check the links below:

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