Review: ‘Noel Field: The Fictitious Spy’

Abizarre and fascinating investigation, "Noel Field: The Fictitious Spy" stands apart from most Cold War documentaries by locating a human focal point who was mixed up --- however haplessly --- in both that era's McCarthy and Stalinist witch hunts. Version unspooled at S.F. fest features polished English-language narration and voiceover translation of interviews, which should aid international exposure. Only handicap is tale's very complicated nature, which helmer Werner Schweizer examines via awkward, if perhaps necessary, structural gambits. Story could well prove fodder for future dramatic treatment, since its real-life central figure proves as perverse as Judy Davis' fictional one in the current "Children of the Revolution" --- though the tragic repercussions related here might defy a similarly humorous treatment.

Noel Field was a Zurich-born U.S. citizen whose earnest, left-leaning politics found principal expression in a series of diplomatic positions: as a peacemaking policymaker for the State Dept. during the Spanish Civil War; as European director of a Unitarian aid agency that helped many refugees flee Nazi persecution; as a liaison to underground Resistance groups. But in 1949 he was abducted in Prague and taken to Budapest for interrogation by both Hungarian and Soviet authorities. (His wife, brother and adopted daughter were whisked off to separate locations.)

Ironically, the very sympathy for leftist causes that had made him a key ally now rendered Field “suspicious” in Communist Party eyes as the Cold War commenced its deep freeze. He was detained for five years — not knowing that his alleged, mythical career as an “imperialist master spy” was being used to incriminate myriad others across Eastern Europe. Many were loyal Party members; many were tortured and killed in Stalinist show trials, all linked to “the great international spy.”

Stranger yet, once Field was released (and reunited with his wife) in 1954, he refused to return to the U.S. — despite all personal suffering and domino-effect injustices, he petitioned for asylum in Hungary. Not until the brutal Prague Spring put-down of 1968 did Field grow disillusioned with the Party he’d eagerly adopted. Arthur Schlesinger tellingly calls him a classic “Quaker Communist,” one so desperately idealistic that he turned a blind eye to every obvious corruption and abuse. He died in 1970, supported to the end in relative luxury by the Hungarian regime.

These revelations come late in the film, as a sort of prolonged twist ending. First roughly two-thirds are taken up with a smartly assembled overview of events as understood now by surviving participants and historians, illustrated by propagandistic films from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

These puzzle pieces suggest Field as a tragic victim of Stalinist hysteria — and draw eerie parallels to simultaneous Red-baiting back home, particularly the trial of early McCarthy/Nixon target Whittaker Chambers. (One notable clip comes from a USSR newsreel mourning the Stateside execution of alleged Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; at just the same time, 11 “traitorous” Soviet Party functionaries were being sentenced to death.)

Yet Field himself remains an enigma until a focal shift begins revealing his hidden character — one that spun in increasingly odd, delusional directions to maintain his “pure” ideological fervor. He was no master spy, by any means.

Schweizer tries to build mystery-like suspense by telling the story from one incomplete perspective, then another. While this does result in genuine surprises, sense that the narrative keeps backtracking and starting over again makes running time seem longer than it is. Nevertheless, info is generally well organized, in particular the crosscuts between U.S. and Eastern Euro/USSR events.

Pic is technically imaginative, with vid-shot interview footage often placed in a corner of the screen while text or other images occupy other areas. Excerpts are used from Costa-Gavras’ 1968 drama “L’Aveu” (The Confession), which starred Yves Montand as another, Czech victim of the Field Affair. The late star is also seen passionately defending that feature in B&W docu footage shot by Chris Marker — in 1968 Paris, even filmic criticism of Stalinist atrocities could provoke anger from the left.

Noel Field: The Fictitious Spy



A Dschoint Verntschr AG production. Produced, directed, written by Werner Schweizer.


Camera (color), Helena Vajnieres, Thomas Hartmann; editors, Kathrin Pluss, Ian Mathys; sound, Martin Witz. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 27, 1997. Running time: 110 MIN.
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