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La Land is a big, bombastic musical – but it's the smaller gestures that make it sing "By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

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NewsHub“Is it nostalgic?” asks Mia, the aspiring actor played by Emma Stone in the musical La Land . “Are people gonna like it?” She’s agonising over the play she has written but this is surely the voice of the writer-director Damien Chazelle asking these questions of his movie. To which the answers would be: “Duh!” and “On the whole, yes.”
Nostalgia permeates La Land right from the opening announcement that it has been shot in CinemaScope, the widescreen format that was prevalent in the 1950s. When Mia returns home, strolling past street murals of Chaplin and Monroe, a giant poster of Ingrid Bergman gazes down from her bedroom wall. And when she goes on a date with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), it is to a picture palace with a light bulb-studded marquee.
Old Hollywood is as glorious and intimidating to these 21st-century lovers as it was in Pennies from Heaven when Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters danced in front of the flickering image of Astaire and Rogers, before entering the cinema screen themselves. Something similar happens in La Land when Mia and Sebastian drive up to the Griffith Observatory after watching Rebel Without a Cause ; it’s as though the movie has spilled over into real life.
Sebastian is Mia’s partner in nostalgia. He’s a pig-headed pianist who rhapsodises about jazz and dreams of owning a club but earns a crust playing easy-listening standards. He and Mia are at the foothills of their ambitions, not always certain whether they should go on climbing or settle for life at a lower altitude. La Land asks the same question as Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash : how do you keep your dreams alive without letting them kill you?
When modern directors tackle the musical genre, there can be an element of hostility present, as though they are slaying a dragon – or, more likely, a sacred cow. La Land is not volatile like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York or Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. It’s a middle-of-the-road confection, pretty rather than deep, which never quite makes its own mark. It takes its melancholic mood from Edward Hopper and its eye-popping colours from Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The most original moments are minor ones: glitter thrown into a hairdryer creates a small silvery blizzard, a handbag matches a row of purple wheelie bins in a back alley.
What’s intriguing is that the film bestows on this stepping stone of a romance the sort of attention traditionally reserved for amour fou. It demonstrates, in a series of casually elegant dance duets beginning with a soft-shoe shuffle on a deserted back road in the Hollywood Hills, how Mia and Sebastian connect in their nostalgic reveries for the briefest of moments. Each time, they are dragged back to the present by the bleeps and blasts of the modern world – a ringtone, a smoke alarm, the chirp of an electronic fob.
The film is at its most convincing in those intimate exchanges between Gosling, with his melted eyes, and Stone, with her anime face. When it reaches for an ambitious, razzle-dazzle effect, such as in the over-complicated dance number in a traffic jam (shades of Fame ) and a poorly directed sequence in which the couple start flying like Goldie Hawn in Everyone Says I Love You , it comes across as merely ersatz. This is not, after all, a film of grand passions.
Nor is Chazelle at his most assured on a large canvas. He is an economical visual storyteller who can nail the small, telling moments. He explains in just two brief shots, for instance, exactly why Sebastian puts his ambitions on the back burner to tour with a band he hates. What Chazelle can’t always do is join up the dots to give the film momentum. After a lively scene introducing Sebastian’s sister (the excellent Rosemarie DeWitt), the picture rashly casts her aside, which is a mistake in such a long and underpopulated movie. It can’t rely, either, on the new compositions to whoosh it along, with the exception of a tentative piano number called “City of Stars”, which is first sung casually by Gosling as he strolls along a pier at night. The rest of the songs aren’t heartfelt so much as Heart FM; Magic rather than magical.
On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.
“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”
Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.
For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.
Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun , in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.
The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened.

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