The Enigma of Frank Ryan - Media Education Journal Review
Frank Ryan’s well-documented involvement in struggle in Ireland, in military action in Spain,?and his improbable wartime sojourn in Nazi Germany, give The Enigma of Frank Ryan (commissioned for Irish TV channel TG4; in English and Irish) a high value simply as political history. But as human enigma Ryan, portrayed through narration and re-enactment, rightly gets as much attention in this film as do the seismic European events surrounding his later years.
The extraordinary facts of his life need recounting. Born in Limerick in 1902, Ryan suffered poor health for much of his life. An early volunteer for the IRA, later the Spanish International Brigade, he was imprisoned in the Irish Civil War, quarrelled badly with the IRA, founding his own republican party of the left, and editing its newspaper. He subsequently fought for the Spanish Republic, wounded early in 1937. After brief recuperation in Ireland, while there founding another left- wing republican newspaper, resisting the IRA call to rejoin, he returned to fight?a losing battle in Madrid, being captured, jailed and sentenced to death.
Subsequent to failed diplomacy involving de Valera and the Vatican, Ryan was sprung from prison by German military intelligence, and taken to Paris, where he met an Abwehr officer, Helmut Clissman, of prior acquaintance, the latter having studied in Ireland, and who persuaded Ryan to go to Berlin. Ryan became involved in German plans to destabilise Irish partition, later involving a failed U-boat mission to Ireland – during which IRA commander Seán Russell died on board – finally choosing to return to Germany, even with the coast of Galway in reach. He died in a Dresden hospital in 1944.
This is rich material, inherently dramatic, fascinating as history. Ryan’s letters and journalism provide a factual basis for much of the narrative. Extensive archive research has matched or juxtaposed dramatic re-enactments with historical film extracts, edited with particular sensitivity, the film also much aided by a thoughtful soundtrack which includes specially commissioned music. Desmond Bell has a fine record of revaluating political history through imaginative use of the visual archive alongside dramatization, and committed research has always been central to his work. This is the latest in a substantial body of films which have mined important political and philosophical material from characters and events which much benefit from creative reworking.
The Enigma of Frank Ryan intercuts historical footage from its core locations with dramatisation transcending the often perfunctory staple of documentary drama/ dramadoc. This is despite the need in a film with a large canvas to compress some key moments schematically. Dara Deveney’s performance as Ryan in its conviction does full justice to the central human focus of the film, while Frankie McCafferty’s superbly truculent Seán Russell (in the film, a distillation of Belfast is Berlin in The Enigma of Frank Ryan several historical figures) is among a number of assured supporting roles.
Belfast and its environs double very convincingly for Berlin, the swastika-draped Whitla Hall of Queen’s University replicating Abwehr headquarters, while the Hérault town of Lamalou- les-Bains provides the continental locations.
The sacrifice which Ryan makes in his life for his political beliefs is represented in the film chiefly through his ultimately abandoned relationship with Rosamund Jacob, a political activist and writer, played by Mia Gallagher, though Ryan’s physical suffering through both ill health, imprisonment and war is always present. Throughout, the theme of exile helps paint Ryan’s difficult character, his dissenting nature as evident in Ireland as in quarrels with the British in Spain, or with his German saviours.
Bell, recently declaring himself weary of debate about documentary terminology, observed that he simply wanted to be historically accurate while harnessing the particular power of film to explore character. In The Enigma of Frank Ryan he achieves a counterpoint between dramatisation and the truth claims of the archive, producing questions rather than trying to fix interpretations.
The human question atthe heart of the film, of what drove Ryan in his perpetual struggle, cannot be answered, while the bigger questions here - not least for Irish political history – are still difficult. Ireland’s response to Nazi Germany contained contradictions which Ryan’s last few years come to represent, if idiosyncratically. This is a man of the left, of iron principle, who takes to the front line at home and abroad. Yet his Spanish Republican sympathies thereafter, and rather surreally, require to be hidden from the Gestapo by the Abwehr while the latter urge him to collaborate with the Reich.
The film sees Ryan voice disgust at the excesses of the Nazi regime, as we think he surely must have felt, though there is no record of it. Significantly, Bell has Ryan recount his life, and therefore in large part narrate the film, to Hans Hartmann, a German radio producer who, working with Ryan’s Nazi handlers, hopes to use him for propaganda purposes in Ireland.
Beyond the scope of The Enigma of Frank Ryan was the reinterment of Ryan’s remains in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin in 1979, in his home country where Ryan can still prove a contentious figure, no less so now that Bell’s film has refigured him with intelligence and complexity.
Neil Blain, University of Stirling