A probing study of misguided career ambition. But trite story elements in `Colonel Redl' dilute the effect of this considerable work

TWO subjects run through the recent works of Istv'an Szab'o, today's leading Hungarian filmmaker. One is ambition. The other is duplicity. Career ambition was at the core of Mr. Szab'o's best-known drama, ``Mephisto,'' the Oscar-winning story of a German actor who accommodates himself to the fledgling Nazi movement. And it's the driving force behind his new film, ``Colonel Redl,'' a probing study of politics and personalities in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Duplicity shows up in Szab'o's work as a penchant for masking thoughts and emotions to suit the needs of the moment. It can serve a good purpose, as when the heroes of ``Confidence'' pose as a married couple to escape persecution and death. But more often, of course, it's a culprit. It leads the protagonist of ``Mephisto'' to hide his loathing of Nazi corruption. And it allows the title character of ``Colonel Redl'' to lead a full-fledged double life, suppressing his true nature behind a self-invented p ersona calculated to curry favor and win power.

The tragedy of Colonel Redl is that he's not very good at this. True, he keeps people fooled for a long time. But he carries his careerism and opportunism so far that his craven character can't help showing through. His past won't leave him alone, either, dogging him with unpleasant reminders and threats of exposure. Worst of all, he fails to see his own faults when they afflict other people -- making him a helpless target for seduction and betrayal by the very men he most desperately plays up to.

The story begins in an obscure cranny of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where equally obscure Alfred Redl gets a chance to attend the state military academy, an honor usually kept for children of the aristocracy. He makes a good showing there, but his good qualities of gratitude and diligence turn sour: His loyalty to the Emperor leads him to spy on his own comrades, and his overzealous work doesn't impress his peers any more than it can single-handedly prop up the crumbling empire.

Working his way up in rank and prestige, he alienates many people in the process and finds himself the target of rumors focusing on his hidden homosexual leanings. (The film treats the issue of homosexuality with relative tact, although it contains a few moments of graphic heterosexuality.) At the height of his career, he is chosen by the Archduke to conduct a prearranged trial involving high treason, an assignment that leads to his own downfall and suicide.

The character of Colonel Redl is similar, in ways, to that of Japanese author Yukio Mishima as he is portrayed in ``Mishima,'' the current film by Paul Schrader. Both movies are based on real events, although ``Colonel Redl'' spins many fictional threads around the actual Redl, an Austrian soldier who killed himself in 1913. Both protagonists are sexually insecure men who become idealists and reactionaries. And both lose their lives (by choice in Mishima's case, by compulsion in Redl's) to causes that m any other people don't consider worth saving.

``Colonel Redl'' is a more conventional film than ``Mishima,'' however, just as Redl is a more commonplace character -- a sneak, not an artist -- than his Japanese counterpart. The early scenes are visually brilliant, with keenly subjective images conveyed through Lajos Koltai's fluid camera work, and the climax gives a burst of bravura acting by Klaus Maria Brandauer at his very best. But the bulk of the tale is less excitingly told. Szab'o spends too much time and effort working out points that don't need such elaboration, and some of the performances bog down along with the screenplay, written (with some inspiration from a John Osborne play) by Szab'o and P'eter Dobai. Trite story elements and too-familiar characters also cut down the film's effect, despite its strong production values and careful attention to detail.

``Colonel Redl'' is not likely to repeat the big success of ``Mephisto,'' even though it was made by the same team of director, star, writer, producer, and cinematographer. This is partly for the dubious reason that Austro-Hungarian intrigue is a less fashionable subject than pure Nazi evil, and partly because ``Colonel Redl'' is more bulky and convoluted than the earlier movie. It's a considerable work, though, and deserves attention from viewers interested in film, history, or the ever-surprising twis ts and turns of human nature.

After showing this week at the New York Film Festival, the film opens commercially today. It is rated R, reflecting some nudity and on-screen sex.

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