What may seem like a never-ending fascination with and focus on the Cold War era and appropriate spy networks also serves an educational purpose.
Through literature, film and TV we seek to understand more about this era and it makes for exciting, all-consuming storytelling about people and day to day living conditions. The nature of the subject makes it easy to create suspense and a sense of tension without much effort, making it a popular subject of entertainment.
However, within the world of cinema and televised fiction, there is a tendency to portray this era and see it through a blue filter. But might it be that values and perceived opposites such as objective versus subjective, friend versus enemy or good versus bad cannot always be attached and in some instances, they just melt together?
The Danish director Ida Grøn decided there was a personal Cold War story to tell and it was necessary to see events purely for what they were and to understand what actually happened, knowing perfectly well, of course, this was not straightforward.
The Stay Behind network was a leading intelligence network during the Cold War and is still talked about to this day.
Following a remarkable premiere and audience reception at documentary festival CPH:DOX in March this year, Ida Grøn’s poetic-investigative documentary Stay Behind – My Grandfather’s Secret War – takes a close, personal look, at her grandfather’s alleged association with the intelligence network.
In her new genre-reinventing documentary Grøn looks at her grandfather and grandmother’s activities during the Cold War era, because according to her own father, archaeologist Ole Grøn, things simply do not add up, so father and daughter embark on a journey of discovery with a view to establishing events and understand what her 95-year-old grandfather Otto’s ’double-life’ was like. Was he really a spy, trained by the CIA? But what really drives them is the desire to gain insight into what Stay Behind was all about.
A respected dentist from the city of Haderslev, in the southern part of Denmark, appears to have been a suitable intelligence cover. At least, on the surface, there was no reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary took place. But questions as to why Otto, Ida’s grandfather, slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow at night and what suddenly made Otto and his wife Dagmar decide to relocate to the US in 1952, leaving a thriving dental practice behind, have so far remained unanswered questions. Then there is Polish partisan Jan Jankowski, who used to work for the CIA and is alleged to have worked with Otto during the Cold War.
There are other signs, too. Her grandparents had a certain method for extracting facts, there was a need for 100 percent accuracy, systematic thinking and they were determined to be up to date on her friends’ whereabouts and would regularly ask follow-up questions. What may have seemed like regular small talk was, in fact, anything but.
Ida Grøn: my grandparents would sometimes collect my brother and I and drive us to their house. On the way they would question us in a thorough manner, making sure all angles were covered. For example, they needed to know everything about our friends, what they had been up since the last time we had seen them. They memorised every detail and would then follow up on it next time we saw them.
Having a connection to the Cold War, and so close to heart, made Ida Grøn want to take a different approach. Grøn chooses to tell the story of her grandfather’s activities using carefully selected stylistic tools that differ from conventional westernised Cold War portrayal, and this is refreshing.
By making use of poetic and emotional storytelling, she creates an intimate, personable story people can relate to. It is an environment where ’hard facts’ are presented with subtlety and audiences are free to draw conclusions without being forced to take a particular side.
Ida Grøn: I just hope the audience enjoy the company of my fantastic grandparents and there will be more transparency around the history of the intelligence in Denmark as a result. Break down the existing taboo that surrounds it. Tell a story of greater accuracy.
With intelligence work comes spying and serving a greater cause leads to lies and deception. Or this is, at least, the version we have become so used to being presented with. But while the person, who leads a ‘double life’, may be described as a liar by others, he or she may not view such involvement as deception or lies.
Ida Grøn: I understand this is not about telling lies, it was about serving a higher cause, and therefore it was important to keep things hidden. I have also reached a greater understanding of what my grandparents were like as people and what things were like for them.
Ida Grøn: The love between my grandparents and I is strong and does not disappear. Some of our findings have obviously been a pretty major and at times there has been a feeling of being overwhelmed, but I think this is normal when you learn something completely new about someone close to you.
Grøn’s drive and ambition meant she did not compromise when it came to her loyalty towards her grandparents or any other contributors. She believes there is a tendency in some documentary making to take a very critical position combined with a need to expose relatives rather than describe them. She did not want to go down that particular route, as it would not strengthen the story or make it somewhat truer.
Being honest when telling the story and being loyal to her own family was, of course, key. In some ways she could make excellent use of how well she knows her grandparents, she understood their behavioural patterns and could perhaps take some things further than she would have felt comfortable doing with contributors she did not have a personal connection to, but equally, it was important to remain respectful and loyal towards them both during and after.
A binding theme in the film is the relationship between events in world history, and, more importantly, how these impact on her grandparents.
Ida Grøn: Right from the start the film’s editor Anders Villadsen and I were ambitious about wanting to make the intimate and personal story blend in with events in world history. An audience may associate a historical documentary with something that deals with big events in the world. For example, I do not view the fact that my grandparents went to the US at the exact time when they did as pure coincidence.
The relationship between the big and the small story is evident in the film. The decision to shoot from above using drones, looking down on the Danish landscape early on in the film, and towards the end of the documentary, where things have been turned upside down, let viewers get a look inside Otto and Dagmar’s living room where that same camera uses the same drone movements looking from above on the coffee table, the cups and the cookies. It is possible to be personal and intimate now that some things are out in the open.
Editorially, the documentary is composed in such a way that it looks back as much as observes events in the here and now. Making effective use of archive footage but doing so in a fresh way was key to the director. It was as much about creating a sensation or a feeling, and not just selecting the most obvious imagery to make a point. The combined use of historical archive footage and stills clearly shows how much research and thought went into the work.
Ida Grøn: The Cold War was an ideological war, and we wanted to show that. A theme in the film is what I like to refer to as ‘the battle for souls’. Although we did not want to be too explicit about it, it is featured in the shape of footage showing people jumping out of windows in slow motion, which is actually from east to west Berlin. It is a subtle way of showing it, but it gives a sense of how much was at stake. The footage is then followed by stills which then become parts in a puzzle on my living room floor – just like the inside of my mind. We believe this works really well and adds an aesthetic dimension. Overall, I believe delivering the vision has been a huge success because the creative team has been fantastic at adapting and contributing to my idea.
She is right about that. It is a beautiful, poetic-investigative documentary that has its twists and turns, ups and downs. It feels very true, true to history and to Ida and her grandparents.
Ida Grøn does not accept half-hearted attempts at film-making and, hopefully even more, wider audiences will benefit from that between now and well into the future. With aspects of Otto and Dagmar’s story being out in the open, it is time to sit back and hope the fine documentary genre Grøn has developed will just be the first of many more to come. •
Stay Behind – My Grandfather’s Secret War is scheduled for a Danish TV premiere on 17th May 2017 on DR1.