Political Film Society - Newsletter #131 - April 20, 2002



April 20, 2002


 

THE CONTRIBUTION OF CRYPTOGRAPHERS IS DECODED IN ENIGMA
Enigma
During World War II British cryptographers at Blentchly Park, a manorial estate some sixty miles north of London, decoded German communications and saved thousands of lives, though their efforts were kept secret until 1975. In Enigma, directed by Michael Apted, those involved in codebreaking are honored through a combination love story and spy story, a fictional genre popular during the war which the film, based on Robert Harris's 1995 novel, revives. When the movie begins, in 1943, the largest convoy ever of civilian and military supplies is being shipped across the U-Boat-invested Atlantic from the United States to Britain, with some supplies also headed for the Soviet Union. An American officer arrives at Blentchly to obtain assurances that the convoy will travel unimpeded; he assumes that codebreakers can determine where the German submarines are located, enabling them to bypass danger. However, the American officer is not pleased when even the top British codebreaker, Cambridge mathematician Tom Jericho (played by Dougray Scott), gives no such guarantee and can only promise to work on the problem. Unfortunately, German cryptographers are using a very sophisticated code that changes daily, so the likelihood of cracking the code seems remote. As the film demonstrates, the process of codebreaking starts with Morse code signals from German sources; the signals are recorded by female telegraph receivers and transmitted to the coderoom, where male codebreakers try to find a pattern, which in turn is relayed to a machine that is a precursor of a giant computer that prints out a message that may or may not be interpretable.

Since the operation is top secret, Wigram (played by Jeremy Northam) keeps a watchful eye on the personnel, employing a female counterspy to find possible leaks. Earlier, Tom fell in love with an employee at Blentchly, Claire Romilly (played by Saffron Burrows), who slept with him and then "moved on" to her next boyfriend, leaving Tom so disconsolate that he has been hospitalized due to a nervous breakdown. Nevertheless, the new challenge mobilizes Tom to work to crack the German code with the aid of a codebook and a special Enigma machine, precursor of a laptop computer. When Claire's roommate, Hester Wallace (played by Kate Winslet), informs Tom that Claire is missing, he tries to track her down while trying to crack the code. With Hester's help, they purloin files and crack a code that contains a text that lists the names some 4,000 Polish men. They infer that the Germans are cataloguing the names of Poles who were slaughtered by the Russians in the Katyn Massacre, a fact that if revealed might erode the wartime alliance between the Allies and the Soviet Union. Evidently because of the Katyn Massacre, British codebreaker "Puck" Pukowski (played by Nickolaj Coster-Waldau) secretly agrees to become a Nazi spy, and arranges to join a U-Boat off the coast of Scotland, carrying the secret that the British have Enigma. "Puck" was also the latest of Claire's lovers, so Jericho suspects that he killed Claire, and he and follows Puck to Scotland, unaware of the latter's intent to defect. The climax of the film thus involves a dramatic showdown. In the epilog, Tom and Hester, now pregnant with their child, enter St. Martin's Church for a music concert. Titles at the end honor the work at Blentchly Park, now a museum, note that the Soviet Union did not accept responsibility for the Katyn Massacre until Mikhail Gorbachev did so in 1990, but fail to give credit to Alan Turing, the actual genius of Blentchly Park. Nevertheless, as a film that brings new facts to the screen, the Political Film Society has nominated Enigma for an award as best film expose of 2002. MH