Boris Volodarsky’s latest documentary, “Spy Capital: Vienna,” weaves a rich narrative tapestry that delves deep into the heart of Vienna’s clandestine legacy as the epicenter of global espionage. With a background that straddles the worlds of intelligence operations and historical scholarship, Volodarsky’s transition to filmmaking is as fascinating as it is fitting. Born into a family immersed in the arts, his journey from an intelligence officer to a historian and then a filmmaker blends a unique mix of personal heritage, professional expertise, and creative vision.

Vienna, with its storied past and architectural majesty, serves as more than just a setting—it’s a character in its own right, embodying the dualities of beauty and intrigue, history and mystery. Volodarsky’s venture is not merely an exploration of the city’s espionage tales but a bridge connecting the intricate dance of intelligence with the broader strokes of world history and cinematic storytelling.

This documentary is a testament to Volodarsky’s life’s work, challenging the boundaries between historical documentation and narrative filmmaking. As we embark on this interview, we invite readers to discover the layers of intrigue that “Spy Capital: Vienna” uncovers, guided by a storyteller whose passion for espionage and storytelling illuminates the shadowy corners of Vienna’s spy legacy. Join us as we delve into an engaging discussion with Boris Volodarsky, a figure whose career defies conventional categorization, offering insights into the making of a documentary that reveals the multifaceted world of espionage in one of Europe’s most captivating capitals.

Shall we begin?

Background and Motivation:

What inspired you to transition from being an intelligence officer and historian to directing films, particularly focusing on espionage?

First of all, even before I became an intelligence officer (which was not too long), I had already received my director’s diploma and was involved in several theatre productions. I come from an old theatre family – my father was a rather well-known theatre director and my mother was an actress. I virtually grew up in the theatre. When I was a student at my first university, I was sometimes invited to play some small roles in films and later wrote plays for radio and television. I want to say that the director’s profession is not new to me.

When I graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science where I also defended my doctoral thesis in intelligence history, I was often invited to consult television programs and documentaries mainly in London but also abroad. I was the chief consultant for the BBC Panorama’s ‘How to Poison a Spy’ about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London, and Michael Mann invited me to be his consultant for the Hollywood movie about Litvinenko – the project, which unfortunately was not completed then. Nevertheless, we remained friends and I have recently sent Michael my new book To Kill a Mocking Bird: The Murder of Alexander Litvinenko (London, 2023) which may become a new movie.

Why focus on espionage? I guess the answer is quite obvious. Many former intelligence officers do exactly this – take part in or consult spy films. I decided I should also direct them.

How has your unique background influenced your storytelling and directorial approach in “Spy Capital: Vienna”?

The most important thing is that I know the subject well. Besides my own professional experience, I have spent many years working in the archives, reading and writing books, doing research, and interviewing people who were involved in specific intelligence operations to draft an accurate script from historical and operational point of view. Then, of course, comes the scriptwriter. On the set, when I am directing a scene or an episode, I know how things should look in terms of tradecraft. Even small details like a brush contact of a dead letterbox must be like they are in real life. And the storytelling must follow the logic of the historical events.

On “Spy Capital: Vienna”:

Could you share the genesis story of “Spy Capital: Vienna”? What was the pivotal moment that led you to embark on this project?

I have published quite a few books, all of them non-fiction, on the history of espionage but have always been thinking about writing a book about Vienna which has been the world capital of espionage for about 150 years. For reasons known to me, my British and American publishers always kept me from coming up with such a project. When several years ago we decided to make a documentary, I thought this would be a good chance.

In blending historical accuracy with cinematic storytelling, what were the key challenges you faced during the production of “Spy Capital: Vienna”?

We have chosen only a few spy episodes for our film out of virtually hundreds. Before starting to work on this documentary we shot some 15 short spy episodes all of them taking place in Vienna at different times. We entitled this series (which can be accessed at our website) “Episodes not included in the film”. Our storyline goes from the well-known case of Colonel Redl (1913) to the almost unknown spy case of Colonel Möller (2023). All members of our creative team: scriptwriter, producer, and myself, we hate boring films. A film, even a documentary, must be highly entertaining, and the tension must be maintained until the end (and even a little more, as in Spy Capital). There must also be new information, discoveries, and unexpected plot twists. The key challenge was to achieve all this without prejudice to historical accuracy.

The documentary employs a mix of interviews, reenactments, and computer-generated imagery. Can you discuss the process and creative decisions behind integrating these elements?

We produced the re-enactments and interviews first. This was done rather quickly and some people thought: great, the job is almost done. But then it took a lot of time, creative work and discussions to come up with what makes the film as people see it today – special cut, computer graphics, some extra shooting with special optical effects and so on. And here I must praise our producer, Dennis Dewall, who contributed the most important creative elements and graphics and almost single-handedly made the film look like it looks today by masterly integrating its elements into one line.

Creative Process and Challenges:

How did you go about selecting which espionage episodes to feature in the documentary, given Vienna’s long history as a spy hub?

Apart from the considerations already mentioned, out of many we were picking up episodes with action but also with internal tension and tempo.

The re-enactments play a significant role in the film. How did you approach casting for these segments, and what was your strategy for achieving authenticity?

We were extremely lucky with our “actors” none of whom was a professional actor, therefore casting took a lot of time. We are happy that people agreed to take part and I believe they are very good by any standard. Authenticity is achieved when the internal state of the performer corresponds to given circumstances. At the same time, on camera, you must not play a role or perform an act. You are you. Non-professional actors who can do it are known as naturals.


Working with a wide range of experts, including historians, former intelligence officers, and an Oscar-winning journalist like Christo Grozev, must have been enriching. How did these collaborations shape the film?

Experts are one of the most important elements of the film narration because as professionals they must convincingly confirm the main thesis. If they do not agree with you, you are probably wrong. Many of our experts are very unusual: a former counterintelligence chief, a former KGB general, a professor who twice became a victim of an intelligence pitch, a renowned investigative journalist… and so on. This is not to mention a former vice-chancellor of Austria, himself a victim of a complex intelligence operation. It was a great pleasure working with them. I did all the interviews and there was never a problem. As usual, the level of your experts shows how serious is your product. Top-class professionals will never agree to take part in a mediocre film because this is forever. I am not talking about actors, I am talking about experts.

The original music theme “Undercover” by Peter Sax adds a significant layer to the film. What was your vision for the film’s score, and how did your collaboration with Sax come about?

When the film was almost ready, we started to think: well it is unusual for documentaries to have their own musical theme but our docudrama is almost like a full-length feature film so we thought something in the style of ‘From Russia with Love’, but modern, should be fine. And Peter Sax managed to create such a theme. We think his ‘Undercover’ is just right. We have known Peter for a long time having worked together on different projects.

Impact and Reception:

What do you hope viewers take away from “Spy Capital: Vienna”? Is there a particular message or feeling you aimed to convey?

First of all, we wanted our viewers to love Vienna. It is a wonderful city, definitely worth it. When you come here you realize that on the one hand, it is very beautiful and modern, and on the other – little changed here in the past 150 years when the Austrian capital welcomed guests of the 1873 World’s Fair. We believe Vienna became the capital of world espionage because it is comfortable, safe and secure, geographically well-located, and has no counterintelligence service. In short, an ideal place. But if you are not a spy on assignment, you simply enjoy the city. Spies, I must add, also enjoy it.

Given the film’s success at festivals and among critics, how do you assess its impact on the public’s understanding of Vienna’s espionage history?

Well, least of all we wanted our viewers to think about Vienna’s espionage history while watching our film. We want them to enjoy Vienna as probably one of the most comfortable cities in the world. Of course, there is another side to it. Nothing in Vienna is as simple as it seems and although professionals are well aware of it, when you think about Vienna most people simply do not know that its ‘missing dimension’ is espionage. In Vienna, one should talk not only about ‘espionage history’ but also about its espionage present and espionage future. It is a very unique place. We want our viewers to realise it not on the logical, but also on the emotional level. And if they do, our job is done.

Looking Ahead:

Are there any other projects or themes you are eager to explore in future films?

Naturally, we have a variety of projects that we want to explore, but as an intelligence historian, I believe my strong side is spy films. Today, people tend to read less and I can hardly imagine anybody reading, say, my book Stalin’s Agent (Oxford University Press, 2014) which is about 1,000 pages, from the first to the last cover. But you can deliver the same message with the help of a movie, maybe even more effectively. I remember 50 years ago in the Soviet Union they produced a TV series called ‘17 Moments of Spring’ which is still a hit. Generations of Russians still know about the wartime intelligence from this movie.

“Spy Capital: Vienna” offers a deep dive into the world of espionage centred around Vienna. Do you plan to expand this exploration into other cities or aspects of espionage in future projects?

We plan to develop this series and the next film project is Spy Capital: London. Because Britain has excellent intelligence and security services plus what was earlier the Special Branch, London has never been the capital of espionage. Here, spies were quickly identified and either expelled or arrested. With this, the most interesting espionage operations of the past decades took place in London. It is my firm principle as an academic and intelligence historian that every espionage case must be reconsidered and reassessed after two or three decades, so we shall take a few known cases and give them a new, fresh interpretation.

There is also another film in this series, which I would like not to name here, but it is also a documentary and the action takes place in California.

Personal Reflections:

Reflecting on your career so far, how do you believe your work has contributed to the public’s understanding of espionage and intelligence work?

I do hope my articles, books, public lectures and now films help people to understand that behind major political or economic decisions there is something called secret intelligence, the same missing dimension. The world exists in several parallel layers, it is multifaceted, but much of what is going on we simply do not see as we do not understand motivations. When on Sunday you walk along some quiet streets of Vienna, say, in the 4th District, you believe the city is sleeping but in reality, it is far from it. The district, known as ‘diplomatic’, is awake and very active 24/7, day and night.

What advice would you give to filmmakers interested in exploring historical or espionage-related themes in their work?

Filmmakers who want to make good spy movies must start by studying the subject matter as best as they can. During their work on the film project, they must work with intelligence professionals, consultants, and experts. Original, non-standard moves are always welcome both in true-life intelligence operations and in spy movies.

As we conclude our fascinating journey with Boris Volodarsky through the enigmatic and historically rich avenues of Vienna in “Spy Capital: Vienna,” we’re left with a profound appreciation for the intricate dance of espionage that plays out in the shadows of this illustrious city. Through Volodarsky’s expert lens, we’ve ventured into the heart of Vienna’s clandestine legacy, uncovering the silent narratives that have shaped not just a city, but the very fabric of international relations. This documentary doesn’t just expand our knowledge of Vienna’s espionage history; it invites us to look beyond the surface, to question and explore the unseen forces shaping our world. As Volodarsky embarks on future projects, continuing to unravel the complex web of intelligence and intrigue, his work stands as a testament to the enduring power of storytelling. It’s a reminder to remain ever curious, ever vigilant, and always ready to discover the untold stories that linger in the whispers of history.