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Reflective Nostalgia in Seventeen Moments of Spring

In the 1973 soviet series Seventeen Moments of Spring, the theme of nostalgia is recurrent throughout its episodes. During part three of the series, in-between his inquiries on alleged negotiations between the West and the Nazi’s, we find protagonist Stirlitz appearing at a funeral in Berlin. This particular scene is an excellent example of the role nostalgia plays within the series. Using Svetlana Boym’s notion of reflective nostalgia, I will explore in an analysis of the funeral scene how nostalgia is represented—through different narrative and cinematic techniques —in relation with the theme of death, and how it used as a tool of pathos.

As Stirlitz is shown standing at a funeral, there is a couple in the row right before him. The two are discussing someone standing in the front of the church: “‘Who’s that?’ ‘Where?’ ‘Over there.’” After these words are uttered, the camera zooms straight in on Stirlitz standing behind them. Even though the question concerns an unknown person, we never find out who they are talking about, since this is irrelevant: the zoom-in establishes Stirlitz as a similar stranger. After all, he is the one who has been disguising his true identity as he lives between the Germans. Like in many of the scenes, the voice-over appears now: it reveals that this is the funeral of Karl Pleishner, a doctor and a member of the Germen resistance, who helped Stirlitz in the past in his battle against the Reich. Stirlitz has positioned himself in the back row of the church, and when he hears a car arriving he steps to the side so that he is out of sight, covered behind a pillar. All this secrecy turns out to be a major source of nostalgia for Stirlitz: The technique of the voice-over is used to express this nostalgia, for instance telling us how Stirlitz longs to get closer to Karl’s body, but he cannot, since this would draw too much attention to him. The elaborate secrecy also proves Stirlitz’s devotion to his comrades and his cause, since he puts himself in a dangerous spot just by appearing at Karl’s funeral. So the fact that Stirlitz’s attends despite all the hazards, reveals his nostalgia for the past, both as a time where his friend Karl was still alive and as a time where he could be himself, where he did not have to hide his true identity.

The particular nostalgia that Stirlitz exhibits here seems to be a reflective nostalgia. In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym describes this concept as follows: “reflective nostalgia is […] concerned with historical and individual time, with the irrevocability of the past and human finitude.” (49). The very setting of the scene alone, a funeral, puts the focus on the subject of death. To introduce this mood, we initially see Stirlitz driving to the funeral through Berlin as it is being attacked, with bombs exploding all around him. Furthermore, Boym also mentions that reflective nostalgia is about the longing itself, that no actual homecoming takes places (49). The nature of a funeral, of death itself, corresponds with these conditions; surely Karl’s death cannot be reversed. In the same way, Stirlitz personal homecoming is also delayed indefinitely, we see him longing for home, but we will never see him arrive.

From the beginning of the scene we hear the funeral conductor recite a biblical verse in German: He is reading from Psalm 90, “From Everlasting to Everlasting”, which carries the subheading “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.” Moses appears in the Old Testament as the figure appointed by God to free the Israelites from the Egyptians. Given the timing of these verses in the scene, this is a significant detail: The recital takes place exactly during the zoom in on Stirlitz’s. Thus a visual connection is made which suggests that Stirlitz plays a role similar to that of Moses: He is meant to free his people, the soviets and other allies, from the fascists. Then, the actual content of the Psalm is also very appropriate:

You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” A thousand
years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of
the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and
withered. (New International Version, Ps. 90.3-90.6).

These lines clearly echo the reflective nostalgia of Stirlitz: Just like Moses he mourns the inescapability of death and the passing of time. The lines invite the viewer to join in on the mourning; the concern with “human finitude” that Boym talks about becomes explicit in these verses. The usage of Christian symbolism could also be viewed as a deliberate opposition to the Nazi ideology: Although many Nazi leaders claimed to be Christians, many of them were in favor of replacing the church with Nazi-adapted kind of religion, and some of them were even publicly opposed to religion: Heydrich, whose funeral will appear in a flashback later in the scene, happened to be one of those. As opposed to Karl’s funeral, that of Heydrich took place in the Reich Chancellery. Especially the choice of the particular biblical text supports this interpretation: the Old Testament and the figure of Moses have many Jewish connotations.

Concerning nostalgia, this opposition with Nazism becomes significant when Nazism is associated with death in this scene: The car that Stirlitz hears arriving turns out to be Kaltenbrunner, the Chief of Reich Security Services, the one who has also grown suspicious of Stirlitz’s actions: He visits the funeral since he has been a patient of Karl Pleishner. As Kaltenbrunner puts his hand on a grieving boy’s face, Stirlitz remembers the funeral of Reinhard Heydrich, where he saw Hitler make the exact same gesture. This visual parallel creates a juxtaposition of the Nazi’s and the anti-fascists in general: in Stirlitz’s flashback, at the funeral of the German, the music changes to an ominous percussion, while at the funeral of the anti-fascist Pleishner the music return to the melancholic organs. Music enhances the portrayal of the Nazi’s as a deathly force. Later, the body of Karl Pleishner is revealed, and we see first a close up of Kaltenbrunner and then of Werner Pleishner (who is Karl’s brother), with Werner looking suspiciously at the officer. So in several ways, the Nazi’s are here directly associated with, and found guilty of, death. In effect, they are thus presented as the main cause of Stirlitz’s and Werner’s nostalgia.

As Werner is standing next to his brother’s coffin, Stirlitz observes him and notes how he has never realized how much Werner looks like his brother Boym discusses a similar non-linear perspective on time: “This [reflective] type of nostalgic narrative is ironic, inconclusive and fragmentary.” (50). Stirlitz is nostalgic for Karl, but Karl’s brother (who looks a lot like him) is still standing in front of him. Later in the series, Stirlitz actually meets up with Werner, who helps him in his mission. So while Karl’s death is definitive, his brother ironically comes into Stirlitz’s life just like Karl did. These fragmentary and ironic qualities also apply to the flashback of Heydrich’s funeral: A simple hand gesture of Kaltenbrunner (at an anti-fascist’s funeral) ironically reminds Stirlitz of the other funeral of a Nazi. In the similarity of the two brothers, and the similarity of the hand-gestures, Stirlitz observes how time can seem to have a cyclical nature. Boym describes exactly this kind of contemplation on time in reflective nostalgics: they “[…] take sensual delight in the texture of time not measurable by clocks and calendars.” (49). Stirlitz’s reflective nostalgia thus functions as an emotional appeal: it calls upon the viewer to empathize with Stirlitz, and to contemplate the extent of death and destruction that is brought upon Europe by the Nazi’s. In the same vein, this emotional affinity with Stirlitz reinforces the importance of his mission in general: it’s a matter of life and death, in which Karl’s death and funeral is only a synecdoche of the larger scale of the destruction. Boym talks about nostalgia being about the relationship between personal and collective memory (XVI): So through Stirlitz’s personal nostalgia, the viewer partakes in it through the collective memory of WW.II.

The fact that Karl is a doctor is also relevant in this scene. In the final shot of the scene, the couple in front of Stirlitz turn to him and ask him if he also has bad kidneys. He lies of course, saying he does indeed. The man then wonders out loud: “Who will treat us now?” Given that Karl is both a doctor and an anti-fascist, one who is now dead, this question could be translated to “Who will fight Nazism now?,” where Nazism can be viewed as a disease or disorder within Germany. So even though Stirlitz answers with “I don’t know”, the tacit answer to the man’s question would of course be “Stirlitz.” And again, the camera zooms in on Stirlitz’s face to confirm this suggestion.

Through the different narrative and cinematic techniques discussed here, the finality of death—as well as the passing of time—are highlighted in direct association with the Nazi regime. The mourning of their destruction establishes a sense of nostalgia, which invites the viewer to empathize with Stirlitz and all his allies.


Works Cited

“Part 3.” Seventeen Moments of Spring. Writ. Yulian Semyonov and Tatyana

Lioznova. Dir. Tatyana Lioznova. Gorky Film Studio, 1973. DVD.

Boym, Svetlana. The Future Of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Print.

New International Version. Colorado Springs: Biblica, 2011. Web. 12 Dec.