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FILM REVIEW: Tracking Edith - A Spy with A Conscience

10 August 2018 | Jade Jenkinson

Born in Vienna 1908, Edith Tudor-Hart (née Suschitzky) began her career as a kindergarten teacher and in the course of her life took on roles including Bauhaus student, mother, KGB spy and antique dealer. However, she is probably best known for her photographic work. Tracking Edith sees Peter Stephan Jungk follow his great aunt’s extraordinary life and, along the way, stumble into some of the most important events of the twentieth century.

Every family has its secrets, yet Edith’s was perhaps more sinister than most. In the documentary, Jungk uncovers that in working for the NKVD (later KGB), the Soviet intelligence service, Edith played a leading role in recruiting the infamous Kim Philby, a long-serving member of the British intelligence turned Soviet spy. She is also named the ‘matriarch’ of spy ring, the Cambridge Five, a group of senior British officials who did irreparable damage in passing information to the KGB during WW2 and at the early stages of the Cold War. Edith was therefore fundamental to the Soviet Union’s infiltration of the British Government.

Image Credit: Tracking Edith

At the same time, Edith also produced some of the most startling and personal photographs depicting inequality, protest and unrest in both Britain and Vienna. Her medium-format camera, a model that was held at hip height, allowed her to look down the lens from above and therefore generate a more intimate relationship with her subjects. The documentary displays a range of Edith’s work: from her early pictures of ‘red Vienna’ in which working-class families experienced widespread deprivation in the 1930’s, to the shocking conditions in the London slums and the hunger and protest which marked the occupants of Welsh mining settlement Rhondda Valley, a place she lived for a time with her (then) husband Alex Tudor-Hart. The emotional intensity of Edith’s lens is depicted in works such Child Staring into a Bakery Window, Whitechapel, 1935 and Family Group, Stepney, London, 1932. Here, her pictures are stark and unpretentious, with a bold sense of truth that situates them within the documentary genre; yet unlike the press photography of the time, there is an empathetic and sensitive quality to her work that places it within a league of its own.

Tracking Edith brings together the photographer and the spy, displaying above all, Edith’s ideological commitment to socialism and belief in equality, fraternity, and internationalism, despite its widescale misuse and the hypocrisy prevalent in the Soviet regime.

Image Credit: Tracking Edith

Towards the end of her career, her pictures in the book Moving and Growing, published by the Ministry of Education in the 1950’s, display a move away from social critique and are among the most beautiful in her oeuvre. At a time in which she was experiencing many personal troubles, due to her son’s deteriorating state and being questioned incessantly by MI5, they express a sense of hope in the healthy, happy children she portrays with so delicate a touch.

Although Edith’s work has been brought to public recognition in the 2003 exhibition In the Shadow of Tyranny at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the documentary, populated by relatives, family photographs and short animation sequences, gives a more personal, intimate viewpoint into Edith’s life. It is a portrait of a woman who remained in the shadows for so long.

Image Credit: Tracking Edith

The work is thoroughly researched and contains many important interviews with ex-KGB officers and her brother, Wolfgang Suschitzky, a famous cinematographer in his own right. The many twists and turns of Edith’s life and the sheer scope of information provided may prove heavy watching for some viewers. Those more interested in in Edith’s artistic oeuvre may be disappointed with the substantial focus on her espionage activities and the foray into the world of the KGB archives, secrets, and conspiracies. That is not to say that the story is not intriguing and finely wrought: with tragedy and bathos, art, politics, and bravery, in an increasingly dark and unstable modern world.

Image Credit: Tracking Edith

Tracking Edith, uncovers a picture of a woman who survived war, family, and political tragedy and who understood, above all, the power of the photograph to enact change and to tell a story, long after the photographer had faded.

Tracking Edith is being screened at various cinemas across the country including at HOME, Manchester (10-16 August), The Plough Arts Centre, Torrington (13 & 21 August), Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds (14 August), Depot Cinema & More, Lewes (17 - 23 August), GFT, Glasgow (21-23 August), DCA Dundee (28 August), ARC, Stockton on Tees (3 September), Firstsite Gallery, Colchester (15 September), Broadway Cinema, Nottingham (24 September) and The Poly, Falmouth (25 September).
 
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