Twice burned by American intelligence, Germany’s pride is wounded and its officials seethe with frustration. This is the state of German-American relations after the monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s calls and last month’s expulsion of a top CIA official from Berlin. It also is a synopsis of the recent film adaptation of John le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man starring the late Phillip Seymour Hoffmann.
American audiences will leave the theatre with a familiar sense of indignation at U.S. intelligence officials’ heavy-handed tactics, backstabbing, and fecklessness as depicted in movies from Austin Powers to Zero Dark Thirty. John le Carre has made the most of this cynicism about the U.S.-led war on terror in his recent novels. German audiences, through the lens of a British novelist and an American actor, may also see a reflection of their own conflicted views about the transatlantic alliance.
Set in Hamburg in a post-9/11 hunt for a terrorist financier, Hoffman plays a frumpy, world-weary German intelligence officer by the name of Günther Bachmann. In contrast to the typical Anglo-Saxon espionage heroes like James Bond, Jason Bourne, or even le Carre’s George Smiley, Bachmann is a portly, ungentlemanly spymaster. He labors to find his man and keep at bay Martha Sullivan, a voracious U.S. intelligence official played by Robin Wright.
Bachmann’s main conflict thus ends up being not with the financiers of global jihad, but with his American colleagues. In several encounters, including a beautifully filmed scene overlooking Hamburg’s new opera house, Bachman and Sullivan hash out their differences. Sullivan admits to Bachmann that he lost his Lebanese spy network due to American incompetence and attempts to soothe his nerves with a vacant promise to keep his government off his back and an appeal to “making the world a safer place.” In the end, American intelligence steals Bachmann’s carefully developed agents.
Le Carre’s stinging conclusion does not necessarily reflect the long history of U.S.-German intelligence relations. In the years following World War II, the U.S. occupying authorities helped set up West Germany’s foreign intelligence apparatus. After reunification, Germany’s foreign and domestic intelligence services have proven adept at surveilling targets, developing networks of informants, and sharing intelligence with the United States on arms dealers, narcotics traffickers, money launderers, and terrorist groups.
The protagonist in A Most Wanted Man does, however, touch upon a worrying undercurrent in this long relationship. In a scene with a fictional German interior minister, Bachmann refers to his plan to capture a terrorist financier as one of using “a minnow to catch a barracuda and a barracuda to catch a shark.” Bachmann explains that he is the one setting the bait to capture the terrorist, but it becomes clear later on that this German official is the small fish in a larger game. In the concluding scene, Bachmann screams out an expletive in frustration at losing his catch to the Americans.
This symbolizes the growing resentment among German officials about being treated merely as a junior partner of the United States. The country’s wealth has more than doubled since reunification in 1989. It has played a pivotal role in shaping Europe’s political economy after the financial crisis. And Chancellor Merkel’s efforts have been critical in managing the Ukraine crisis. Now in the wake of the NSA scandal, prominent members of her own party call for an expulsion of all U.S. agents from the country and accuse the United States of being a “digital occupying force.”
Official sentiment now more fully reflects the attitudes of the public at large. A recent Pew Ppoll suggests that a nearly quarter of those Germans surveyed no longer believe the U.S. government respects Americans’ personal freedoms. Overall U.S. favorability in Germany has declined further than any other Western European nation since President Barack Obama’s election in 2008.
This does not necessarily indicate a lasting anti-Americanism, but it does point to a key relationship in need of significant repair. Germany risks turning away from a trusted partnership from which it has no obvious alternative. The United States, though it often wants Germany to be more assertive in foreign affairs, may end up encouraging it to set priorities that diverge from its own.
The Obama administration must continue to demonstrate that it takes Germany and privacy issues seriously, while Merkel and other German leaders should resist the worst conspiracy theories about American motivations. Public accusations and conducting counterintelligence operations against one another will yield little of value. Recent high-level exchanges have had little public impact, which shows the need for a more sustained dialogue on data privacy and security in the digital age.
In A Most Wanted Man, Günther Bachmann is caught between a German government unwilling to acknowledge his work and an American government that is all too willing to exploit it. While he fades from the screen in resignation, the sense of disillusionment and bitterness lingers on. A year has now passed since the initial release of Snowden’s files and both the public and officials are exasperated; it should not take more revelations about U.S. spying to move transatlantic relations out of the shadows.