Film: 4 cups of…tea
DVD: 3.5 cups of tea
Written by: Hans-Christian Schmid, Michael Gutmann und Michael Dierking
Directed by: Hans-Christian Schmid
Starring: August Diehl, Fabian Busch, Dieter Landuris, Jan Gregor Kremp
- Audio Commentary by the director, script writers and producers
- Video group discussion with the same people
- Text information on R.A. Wilson and the Illuminati
Released by Eurovideo / Touchstone Home Video
Rating: Free for kids 12 and older (German rating)
Aspect Ratio: 1,85:1 (16:9 anamorphic)
My advice: Try getting it if you think it’s worth the trouble.
Anyway, to start things off, I have one of the best hacker movies around for you.
I used to to say that, if I had been born only five or ten years earlier I would have become a computer hacker. Back in the mid to late 80s, when the global computer network was new and fresh, hacking was easy and before the group of hackers grew in size, it was not even illegal. The movie 23 â€“ nichts ist so wie es scheint (translation: “23 â€“ nothing is the way it appears to be”) depicts the life of German hacker Karl Koch (Diehl). Although the movie is based on actual events (and apparently a ton of research) the plot deviates from the actual story a bit â€“ naturally.
Koch is a typical “angry young man” and a politically active leftist. He joins demonstrations against nuclear power plants and publishes a political leaflet, much to the inconvenience of his conservative father who works for a big newspaper. Already a half-orphan, Koch loses his father at the age of nineteen and inherits one hundred thousand Deutsche mark, which allow him to rent his own place.
His apartment becomes a sort of party zone and meeting point for the local computer scene and other friends of Koch’s. He meets his future best friend David (Busch) during a gathering of computer enthusiasts and hackers…and soon they discover that they have a lot of other interests in common as well. There is Koch’s obsession with the Illuminati as portrayed in the Illuminatus! books co-written by Robert Anton Wilson (who has a short cameo in the film) and their symbolic use of the numbers five and twenty-three and the conspiracy theories connected with the infamous secret society.
The life of the two young hackers takes a turn for the dangerous, when they are discovered by the programmer and criminal Lupo (Kremp), who wants to put their talents to a more profitable use. He introduces Karl and David to Pepe (Landrius), a somewhat goofy drug dealer who establishes a contact with the Russian KGB. This part of the story is a comedic as it is unbelievable, yet the writers of the film assure us in the bonus material, that this is the way the real life Pepe tells the story as well. The film itself only profits from the comic relief that Pepe and his visit of the Russian embassy in East Berlin provide.
Especially in the second half of the movie, darker tones dominate. Paid by the KGB to spy on the Western world, hack into the Pentagon and find as much data as they can, Karl and David become two of the world’s most active hackers at the time. They spend every night (since the phone costs were lower during nighttime) sitting behind their Atari ST using wordlists and trojan horses to infiltrate the American defense headquarters. Through their connection with Pepe, they get their hands on drugs, first taking them to get high, then to stay awake, then to stay normal â€“ the natural progression.
When Karl’s natural paranoia is being amplified by cocaine and the fact that he, the anarchist at heart, is actually working for a secret service, the timing could not be worse. Karl owes Pepe money for the drugs, he needs the drugs to perform the job at hand… a vicious circle.
23 is one of the best German movies of that weird decade we call the nineties. Even if you have no understanding of, or a particular interest in the history of computer hackers, it will still entertain you.
The sheer force of world events and psychological problems are crushing the film’s characters over time, which turns the story’s tone from comedic to a very bleak one. Both the lighter, sometimes even very funny moments of the first act, as well as the more serious moments of the story are supported by the film’s strong cast. August Diehl was a newcomer when he starred in 23 and won the German movie award for his portrait of Koch, although I am not sure he deserved that much recognition for his performance–but he is definitely giving a strong one. The supporting cast is equally strong, especially the subtle performance of Fabian Busch carrying the movie, connecting the audience with the story when its main character starts to be come outlandish.
Whenever I am watching a movie “based on actual events” I have to frown. I am just a fan of fiction I suppose. In this case, I could not help but wonder how factual the content of the story is. As the audio commentary and the group discussion on the DVD reveal, research was extensive but partially inconclusive. Maybe it is bound to happen: when you are dealing with the life story of a computer hacker who is obsessed with conspiracy theories, solid information is hard to come by. How dubious is the whole thing? Well, the German Wikipedia article on Karl Koch’s life, has a warning that more citation is needed, although there are citations available. The discussion about Koch’s destiny has not stopped to this day.
Sadly, the DVD does not come with English subtitles AND is only available as Region 2. While the Region Code is easily bypassed, I imagine the lack of English subtitles to be a problem. I was able to find two websites that offer some sort of fanmade subtitles. The usage of which seems to be a bit technical, and copyright is fuzzy as well but if you own the DVD I do not see a logical issue in downloading those subtitles. Then again, laws and logic…you know.
If you are interested in the KGB hacking operations in Western Germany of that time, there is also a book depicting the American perspective on the events called The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage by Clifford Stoll. You can snag it from Amazon here.
Till next time,