The number of defections across the Berlin Wall have been growing, which is providing great embarrassment to the Communist authorities there, but the West are understandably pleased. The latest has been an East German concert pianist, but there's one Brit not impressed with him and he is Secret Service agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) who when he hears the pianist on the radio thinks he sounds like he's playing with his elbows. However, what if there were a more prestigious member of the Communists who wished to defect?
That someone being Colonel Stok (Oskar Homolka), a powerful member of the Russian military - sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? That's certainly what Palmer thinks, but it doesn't stop him taking the assignment to meet Stok in Berlin to arrange the defection, not that Palmer has much choice in the matter because if you'd seen the previous hit with the character, The Ipcress File, you'd know he was pretty much forced to become a spy lest he spend time behind bars instead. For some, this sequel, also based on a Len Deighton novel, was a comedown after the high mark of the first instalment.
The chief complaint being that it was far too confusing, and it was true that screenwriter Evan Jones made little attempt to keep the stragglers in the audience up to speed with what was going on. In a way the plot relied on coasting on Caine's charm - he's especially witty in this one, his one-liners delivered with great aplomb - to assure the viewer that somebody knew who was on which side and doing what to whom, and it was compelling to see the tone change from almost lighthearted spy shenanigans to something far darker and more cynical. What you really needed to know was whether Stok really wished to defect or not, and if not why not.
Well, that and the other thread of the narrative which concerned who was going to get a huge stash of Nazi gold stolen from the Jews during the Second World War and held, untouched ever since, in a Swiss bank. When Palmer reaches Berlin, and the film used actual locations there, for realism not to mention a pervasive grim atmosphere, he meets up with Johnnie Vulkan (Paul Hubschmid), his contact there; they greet each other like old friends, but as we soon find out there are really no friends in this spy game. Palmer does meet Stok (Homolka in top jovial yet sinister form), and the plans to smuggle him out of the country are made.
But Palmer is still sceptical even as this scheme goes into action, with what has started out as an almost friendly rivalry betwixt East and West growing increasingly tense, as if the film was waking up from the movie version of espionage, all very glamorous and exciting and, yes, James Bond, to the more despairing truth of the Cold War where people were killed for murky reasons and the climate was one of a creeping dread. Palmer got his own variation of the Bond Girl in Samantha Steel (Eva Renzi), who he happens to meet but sure as everyone is suffering a degree of paranoia in this he thinks she's too good to be true, and such is the movie's pessimism he's absolutely correct in that assessment. If Funeral in Berlin was the least flashy of the Palmer trilogy, that's doesn't mean it's the least interesting, as there was much to appreciate; Bond director Guy Hamilton showed he could adapt to the more sombre style as easily as he could the big setpiece, leaving this an underrated sixties spy effort. Music by Konrad Elfers.