This exquisitely well-conceived and developed Hungarian-West German-Austrian co-production is based on the enigmatic suicide on May 19, 1913 of Alfred Redl, a colonel in the Royal Imperial Army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. English playwright John Osborne took a crack at deciphering the Redl affair in a 1966 drama A Patriot for Me. With nods to this work and other interpretations of the period and the suicide, Istvan Szabo (whose Mephisto won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film) has fashioned an engaging movie about ambition, class conflict, illusion, homosexuality, and betrayal.

Young Alfred Redl, the son of poor parents, is chosen to attend the prestigious military academy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He is befriended by Kristof Kubinyi, an aristocrat who during holiday takes him home and introduces him to the privileged lifestyle of the nobility. Alfred is dazzled and delighted to meet his friend's pretty sister Katalin.

While at the military academy, the conscientious Alfred discovers his homosexual proclivities — especially his love for Kristof. He serves as a second for him in a duel in which a classmate dies — an action that jeopardizes his career. However, Colonel von Roden, who respects the youth's hard work and loyalty to the Emperor, gives him a prized post in Vienna. There he gets together with Katalin, who is unhappily married. They eventually become close friends.

Eventually Redl becomes district commander of a garrison near the Russian border. He is a harsh taskmaster: the aristocratic soldiers under him do not share his adoration of the Empire nor his puritanical standards. Redl has a falling out with Kristof, who humiliates him in front of the men by referring to his lowly origins.

Colonel von Roden gets him a high ranking post as deputy chief of the Imperial Army's espionage service. Here after all his years of service, Alfred's career ends at the hands of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who views him as a self-made upstart with an anachronistic loyalty to the Emperor. He spins a web in which Redl is the prey. Alfred's homosexuality (despite his marriage to cover it up), his zeal for exposing corruption, and his ambition are used against him by the clever Archduke who plans to overthrow the Emperor.

Klaus Maria Brandauer's brilliant performance as Colonel Redl is a long and taxing part in which he is at once arrogant, intense, vulnerable, and in the end self-destructive: a man betrayed by his own illusions. Also excellent in supporting roles are Jan Niklas as Kristof, Gudrun Landgrebe as Katalin, and Armin Mueller-Stahl as Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Director Szabo builds the drama's momentum in such a way that the film grows in depth and force until the poignant finale when Colonel Redl is given a gun and told to commit suicide rather than be degraded in a trial which will reveal his espionage and homosexuality.