Norma Nannini, Sue Wolf and ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’


Last August, when Norma Nannini passed on to her reward, I got the news a bit late to pen a fitting eulogy.

All I could say in any case was to repeat what every other mugg had already said about her work-strewn office on the fourth floor of the Variety enclave. Plus her nimble ability to produce two tickets to a hot Broadway show for Dorothea and myself whenever I stopped by on 46th Street.

But there is one Norma Nannini tale that deserves repeating. It has to do with Sue Wolf and “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.”

One day (but don’t ask me the date), I received a phone call at home in West Berlin from Norma with a request. Could I host Sue Wolf, her invaluable office assistant, and Sue’s traveling companion when she comes calling?

No problem, I answered. Since my wife Dorothea was shooting a film in Switzerland, there was plenty of room.

Some days later, the phone rang. The call came from East Berlin. Unusual, to say the least.

The voice on the other end wasted no time. He simply asked if I could pick up Sue and friend at the Zoo Station in West Berlin. But as I had no idea what she looked like, I told him to tell her to stand under the clock outside the station. It worked. And I ended up with two college girls with backpacks for overnight guests. A welcomed break in a mugg’s routine.

I was more than interested when I learned that they had just spent six weeks touring East Germany.

So I asked that foolish question, one that Sue must have heard a hundred times.

“Are you by chance related to Markus and Konrad Wolf?”

“My uncles,” she answered.

Curiosity got the better of me. So I probed deeper.

“Did you perhaps take a picture of ‘Misha’ (Markus) Wolf?”

“Why?” she asked.

I explained to Sue why no photos of her famous uncle even existed save for one snapped outside an embassy in Sweden that appeared in Spiegel magazine a couple years back. Also, that Markus Wolf was the prototype for John Le Carre’s spy thriller “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” (published in 1963). In other words, “Misha” was East Germany’s legendary spy master. Indeed, his reputation in West Germany was nothing short of notorious.

Looking back, my guess is that Sue Wolf had a pretty good idea about what I meant. She volunteered that her grandfather, doctor-writer-playwright Friedrich Wolf (1888-1953), had been married twice. Sue’s father, Lukas, if I am not mistaken, was born into the first marriage and emigrated to the United States.

During the Second World War, while Konrad Wolf was working as an interpreter for the Red Army on the Eastern Front, Lukas Wolf was serving in the American Army during the Italian Campaign. He met and married an Italian girl, which accounted for Sue’s Mediterranean charm and good looks.

Over dinner, I remember I talked a great deal about the late Konrad Wolf, DEFA’s premier film director.

Back in 1977, when I helped to organize a Konrad Wolf Retrospective at the Berlinale, I was asked to moderate a press conference with the famous film director and President of the East German Academy of Fine Arts. My German was good, but not good enough to hold my own with top critics and politicos in the crowd. Konrad noticed my discomfort and suggested, offhand, that we just allow questions and take it from there. That fascinating press conference ran well over an hour.

Later, I asked if I could do something for Konrad in return.

He said he would like to visit America, but needed an invitation. He told me about two boyhood American friends, the Fischer brothers, from his student days in Moscow. I found out that one of them was a professor at City College of New York in Manhattan, the other a college professor in Alaska. A letter went off to the CCNY contact, and Konrad Wolf got his invitation.

But one invitation was never enough according to GDR (German Democratic Republic) protocol. So I asked Al Milgrom at the University of Minnesota Film Society to send Konrad Wolf another invitation, saying that prints of his films were available from a United Nations depot.

It fit the bill. And Konrad was a hit in Minneapolis, where East German literature ranks high on the university program. Thereafter, I received regular invitations to the East German Academy of Fine Arts until Konrad Wolf’s premature death at age 55 in 1982.

But to get back to the spymaster, Marcus: My first encounter with “Misha” Wolf was after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. We met at the Saarbruecken film festival, where he was a guest of Oskar Lafontaine, a leading figure in today’s Links Partei (Leftist Party) in the German Parliament.

My conversation with Misha shifted, of course, to Sue Wolf. And he thanked me for hosting his niece.

This rambling tale doesn’t end there. One wintery afternoon, at the 2005 Berlinale, I noticed that Misha was looking for the venue showing Malte Ludin’s documentary film, “2 Oder 3 Dinge, Die Ich Von Ihm Weiss” (2 or 3 Things I Know About Him), about the filmmaker’s own father who had joined the Nazi Party to advance his career, to the embarrassment today of the entire family.

I pointed the way to the Berlinale venue and then asked Misha: “How’s Sue?”

He turned on that wry smile and said he had visited his American cousins twice.

When Markus Wolf died at age 83 in November of 2006, he was buried next to his brother Konrad in the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery in Berlin. A granite stone honoring the brothers marks the site.

Looking back, I regret that I didn’t spend more time with “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold”. But Sue Wolf, I am sure, can fill in the blanks and tell you the full story of her trip through the German Democratic Republic at the height of the Cold War.

My apologies for the tricks that memory plays.