(1928) Directed by: Fritz Lang; Written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou; Based on the novel Spione by Thea von Harbou; Starring: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gerda Maurus, Willy Fritsch, Lien Deyers;
Available on DVD
“…Haghi, the master spy, is nothing less than what we would call today a human computer… He has an utter disregard for human beings. They are for him nothing but chess men, which he moves according to his mathematical mind.” – Fritz Lang (from a 1967 speech at the University of California, excerpt from Fritz Lang, by Lotte Eisner)
I don’t know how Fritzi from Movies Silently does it, thinking of one great blogathon after another, but I owe a debt of gratitude for letting me be a part of her latest, the Snoopathon. Fritzi’s blogathons are the blogging equivalent of Lay’s potato chips, because I can’t stop at just one. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series, celebrating cinema’s many depictions of spies.
Long before James Bond or the espionage antics of Mad Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy,” there was Fritz Lang’s Spies, featuring more snoops and counter-snoops than you can shake a proverbial stick at. While Lang and his then wife/collaborator Thea von Harbou fleshed out the story, Spies was at least partially inspired by real historical events. According to Lang, the main plot was modeled after a mid-‘20s incident in London known as the Arcos Raid. Sporting a killer ‘stache that would have made Dali jealous, Fritz Rasp appears in a small but pivotal role as Colonel Jellusic, who was based on Austrian Colonel-General Redl (Eisner).
Decades before 007 would make his debut, Will Fritsch played police spy Number 326 (aka: Donald Tremaine). I’m not sure if this is the first time in film history when the protagonist has a number instead of a name (cue the Johnny Rivers song), but it has to be close. 326 is hot on the trail of a shadowy evil mastermind, intent on toppling the government. Things get complicated when he falls for the equally shadowy Sonja Baranilkowa (Gerda Maurus). Unlike his cinematic descendant, however, he’s more of a lover than a fighter, turning into a dopey sad sack in her presence.
Lang regular Rudolf Klein-Rogge (who also appeared as the title character in the Doctor Mabuse films) plays the scheming Haghi,* director of the Haghi bank and engineer of a fiendish plot to intercept a crucial Japanese treaty document. Sitting behind his desk with steepled fingers and plotting nefarious schemes from his ultra-modern office, Haghi resembles the template for Bond nemesis Blofeld. The individuals who work for him are merely cogs in his machinery, to be manipulated or discarded at will. With his hypnotic stare and flamboyant hand gestures, he’s a purposely theatrical villain, which Lang reinforces and exploits in the film’s climax.
* Lang noted that Haghi’s distinct appearance was modeled after Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (Eisner)
Maurus,** in her debut performance, creates a magnetic presence as elegant counter-spy Sonja. She becomes increasingly conflicted as the film progresses, forced to choose between her fear-based loyalty for Haghi, and her budding affection for 326. Sonja is the embodiment of grace under pressure, sophisticated and capricious, but not without a conscience. Also making her debut, albeit in a smaller role, is Lien Dyers as the seemingly innocent Kitty, who manipulates Japanese chief of secret service Matsumoto (Lupu Pick).
** In his book Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Patrick McGilligan discusses the torrid affair between Lang and his starlet, Maurus, which von Harbou tolerated (to a point). Lang’s infatuation with Maurus and alleged indignation with another up-and-coming ingénue, Dyers, could account for the relative disparity in the actresses’ screen time.
Although Spies was a much lower budget production compared to Metropolis, Lang’s trademark visuals are on full display. The wonderful expressionistic look values bold compositions over realism. Each shot is meticulously framed, creating a memorable experience for the viewer. In one scene inside Haghi’s lair, we’re treated to the image of interlaced stairways bustling with frenzied activity, recalling a bee hive. In another scene, when Sonja obsesses over the numbers “33 133,” the digits float over the image of a doomed train and tick like a pendulum in a clock. Spies also includes some great action sequences, such as a train crash and motorcycle chase, culminating in a final showdown in Haghi’s bank.
Ask film enthusiasts to name their favorite Lang films and most are likely to list some of the more obvious titles, such as M, Metropolis, or possibly The Big Heat. While these films deserve their well-earned reputation, Spies should also get its due as an exceptional entry in the director’s resume. Neither as ambitious as Metropolis, nor as deep as M, Spies succeeds on a different set of criteria from its contemporaries. Spies more than achieves its primary objective to entertain and thrill its audience. Even at two hours and 24 minutes, the film runs at a brisk pace, building momentum, and culminating in an exciting conclusion. Lang’s film should satisfy fans of this vital era in German cinema, as well as aficionados of the spy genre.