I first came across the story of Frank Ryan over thirty years ago when his presence still exercised a ghostly presence on the left in Ireland. To most of us his wartime activities in Berlin seemed at odds with his earlier life as a radical in Ireland and Spain. However many felt it better to draw a discreet veil over his stay in Berlin. Ryan's story in turn seemed to raise serious questions about Ireland's decision to opt for neutrality in the Second World War. Accounts of Ryan's life by biographers and documentarists shied away from Ryan's lonely years in wartime Berlin opting instead to focus on his activities during the Spanish Civil War.
From the outset I was anxious to provide a sympathethic but searching portrait of Ryan, one that would openly confront the Berlin episode but place this fully in its historical context. I worked closely on the historical detail of the script with historian Fearghal McGarry whose even-handed account of Ryan's life proved an invaluable source. Hopefully the finished film gives a broader sense of a life lived, of commitments made and broken, of loyalties tested and relationships fractured. Certainly a life of contradictions. But those contradictions are only intelligible against the backdrop of the period.
It has become a cliche in these supposedly post-ideological times for the director of a biopic to decry that any specific political interest guides them in their choice of subject or their treatment. I think here of Steve McQueen's directorial comments about his film on Bobby Sands, Hunger. Directors and producers solemnly voice a commitment to address the human story behind the public face of their subject. etc, etc. Often this stance is disingenous and represents nothing more than a clever marketing strategy to maximise the audience for a film by avoiding political controversy. Certainly I wanted to rescue the Ryan story from the ideologues who would make a very individual tragedy the occasion for general judgement on the moral and political character of Irish republicanism, north and south of the border. On the the other hand, Ryan's story is really only comprehensible within the history of a period which saw Ireland and a number of other small nations becoming independent, the Great Depression, which witnessed the titanic clash between communism and fascism, and which experienced the drift to world war and the subsquent brutal transformation of the lives of millions of European citizens. The question of Ryan's collaboration with the Nazis is the one which will most engage Irish audiences (the film will be broadcast by Irish television station TG4). Certainly when we see Ryan with IRA leader Sean Russell in Veesenmeyer's Abwehr office surrounded by the visual trappings of fascism an arresting case seems to be made via the graphic potency of the filmic image with regards Ryan's status as a collaborator. But as the dialogue in this scene unfolds it becomes clear that this is a simplistic reading: that Ryan rather than being an active collaborator is very much at the mercy of events beyond his control and in part a victim of his own naive trust in others.
A number of film-makers have been attracted to the Ryan story, in part because of its epic quality and tragic elements and, in part, because of the enigmatic character of Ryan. Ryan, or certainly a character loosely based on him and his activities in Berlin, does figure in The Eagle has Landed, the 1976 film directed by the John Sturges and based on Jack Higgins novel of the same nam, starring Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin, the Ryan cipher. It is rumoured that Irish actor Gabriel Byrne expended a lot of energy trying to get a feature on Ryan off the ground in which he would play the lead role. Unfortunately he was not successful in this venture. Indeed at a time when there was a cultural will to tackle the story the resources were not available in Ireland to do. More recently with better funding for film production available, a newer generation of film-makers have largely shied away from politics and history in their choice of subject matter.
How then to tell a story of this scale and historical and narrative complexity? And, how to do so within the sort of limited budget available to film-makers today in Ireland in what remains a 'poor Celtic cinema'. From the outset it was obvious we were not in a position to restage the Spanish Civil War nor to reconstruct wartime Berlin. Nor did I see any necessity to do so. The distinguishing feature of my work as a film-maker has been the creative use of moving image archive and the interweaving of this with narrative voice and live action. Despite the herculean efforts of the designers of historical costume drama there simply is no better guide to how things were than the archival record. It can be fragmentary and partial but then so can memory. A film like The Enigma of Frank Ryan seeks to use archive to provide historical context and detail alongside live action to stimulate the audience's historical imagination and critical powers. The aim is not so much to provide an open window on the past (such as a costume drama promises) but rather to assemble a series of fragments from both the archival record and via dramatic reconstruction, in order to encourage the audience not primarily to suspend their disbelief but to actively interrogate the historical account they are being offered.
Working within considerable material constraints, cinematographer Sam Mitchell, together with designer Richard Hudson, has produced a visually rich film. The film was shot in a very tight schedule over sixteen days in and around Belfast and in Lamalou les Bains, a spa town in the Haut Languedoc. The schedule was made even more exacting as we were filming scenes in two languages - English and Irish (Ryan was an accomplished and enthusiastic Irish speaker and often used the language in daily intercourse). However both the cast and crew rose to the challenge. Dara, as Frank Ryan and Barry Barnes as Hans Hartmann provide intelligent readings of their characters with Dara capturing both the energy that drove Ryan and the inner turmoil of the man. Mia Gallagher, playing Ryan's lover Rosamond Jacob, brings a feminist politics of the everyday to bear on Ryan's ideology and actions.
A range of key archive materials were assembled from the collections of the National Archives (US) the Library of Congress and the Irish Film Archive, amongst others, and incisively intercut with the live action drama by editor Nigel Galt. Nigel worked closely with Stanley Kubrick for many years and cut Eyes Wide Shut for the maestro, so was well placed to find the appropriate resonances between archive and live action, and between the need for documentary clarity and the achievement of dramatic expression. He also mixed the sound for Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and it was great to draw upon that experience in our sound design. Contemporary Irish composers Deirdre Mc Kay and Dave Flynn contributed haunting musical elements to the sound track.
Is the film a documentary? Is it a dramadoc, that most slippery of terms? I am no longer sure how useful these terms are. Let's just call it a fact-based drama or dramatized factual story telling adressing the stuff of history. Every effort is made to be as historically accurate as possible in the telling but clearly the expressive power of cinema can illuminate the inner core of a character and their actions. Hopefully the abrasive texture of the archive rubbing up against the drama punctures the illusory character of the filmic text and allows history to rush in - in all its complexity and contradiction. Ryan lived his life against the backdrop of the great social crises and political struggles of the last century and we must make sense of that life in relationship to those forces. 'To articulate what is past ', Walter Benjamin argues, 'does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger'. In our current era of crisis, as the debris of unfettered capitalism piles up before us, we face such a moment of danger. Hopefully Ryan's story can be an instructive one.
Lamalou les Bains