Two of Fritz Lang’s most heralded masterpieces, and the films he’s best known for, Metropolis, and M, were made during his fertile period of 1927 – 1930. One film was the final great statement of the silent era, and the other the first powerful offering in sound. Yet, not as well known but equally deserving of praise, is his epic Spies (Spione) made in 1928, between the former and latter classics. While Metropolis’ dystopian view into the future sparked scientist’s and fiction writers’ imagination for generations to come, and M was the calling card that Hitchcock and every suspense and action director since referenced, the legacy of Spies can be traced forward to James Bond, Jason Bourne and to some extent, the modern spy thriller.
Wildly entertaining, imaginative and groundbreaking, Spies offers up intrigue, spectacle and espionage the likes of which we still see today in the most advanced, cutting edge and CG laden blockbusters.
Recently restored to its original 178 minute running time, Spies draws from Lang and scenarist/wife Thea von Harbou’s long tradition of crime serials and pulp thrillers, started early on with the 1919 two parter Spiders, continuing on with cliffhanger The Indian Tomb, and the Mabuse anthology. Adventure anthologies were all the rage in the teens and 20’s, such as Fantomas and Les Vampires, but Lang’s entries pushed the boundaries beyond what was familiar and common. While some of Spies performances admittedly suffer from the melodramatic clichés that have long haunted the silents, the direction, editing, staging and story is leaps and bounds beyond the usual fare.
Spies starts off with a bang, literally, as shootings, muggings and assassinations happen in quick succession. Dramatic angles of fleeing motorcycles, carnage and newspaper headlines fly at the screen. Superpowers are brought to their knees as a secret cabal is always one step ahead of the law and suspicion. A blind man walking his dog, a carnival clown and even a seemingly itinerant beggar are all spies. The latter, Agent Number 326, is the grandfather of 007, faithful servant of Germany’s Secret Service. He eludes the police with the aid of his valet, who instantly swaps his rags for an aristocrat’s smoking jacket, and his rough beard for shaving cream.
Willy Fritsch, a German matinee idol with surprisingly modern good looks, plays Number 326, working tirelessly to discover who is behind the thievery of plans, documents and secret papers. Hitchcock’s trademark device, the “MacGuffin” was in full effect already by Lang). We never know what’s in these “sought after papers,” just that exposure could mean the end of all civilization.
Number 326 falls for another Agent, the femme fatale Sonia Barranikova (Gerda Maurus – whom Lang was having an affair with right under the nose of his collaborator-wife). But Sonia works for the evil Haghi, the precursor to James Bond’s Blofeld, down to the wheelchair, working behind a desk of switches and communication devices. Played with slimy finesse by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the mad scientist from Metropolis, Haghi is both head of this mysterious crime organization and the public bank. He has agents everywhere, working in the telegraph office, the post offices and train stations. They use disappearing ink, lapel size cameras and a secret sign language to discover and disseminate information. Haghi even has a computer that reveals “texts” on the wall with the latest secret information.
The film is brimming with wonderful set-pieces, from the gassing of a multi-storied building and a fight happening simultaneously in a hidden room, to a train collision that is beyond the imagination. The final surprise that modern audiences will see coming, still offers up a successful rendering of dramatic irony, as the characters have yet to see the full scope of super villain Maghi’s power and infinite reach.
Lang was, much like Erich von Stroheim, one of the infamous slave drivers, pushing his cast and crew to the edge, with countless takes and an eye for detail that would send even the most obsessive filmmaker to distraction. Before there were unions and compartmentalization of actors and stunt doubles, the cast throws itself in harm’s way countless times throughout the production. The fights draw blood, and the sets offer up a torturous labyrinth of twisted metal and exposed edges, one actor is literally buried alive. Hard to argue that it was all worth it, but seeing the peril that the situations are fraught with, including Lang firing real loaded guns on the set to elicit the most overwrought reactions he could glean from his actors, Spies delivers a tangible tension few films at the time could equal.
As usual, Lang’s multi-layered frames are stuffed with shadows and symbols, vamps writhe and undulate to seduce their prey, cigarettes pump out enough smoke to suffocate a small army, foreground gives way to deep focused backgrounds of both subtle and overt images. A leather clad motorcyclist, after crashing through a window display, arms outstretched with a gun in each hand, fires away, a train engine with the camera mounted in front, barrels through another car as interiors crumble before our eyes, a double agent sucks on the beads of a necklace she was given by the Head of Japanese Security, intercut with his suicide. These are just some of the many images and gripping tableaux that will stay with you long after the film is over.
As great as Lang’s sound films were, it’s his powerful images from Metropolis and Spies that will forever remind us of the splendor of the silent era, and continue to inspire filmmakers. There are probably more directors today who don’t even realize the source of their inspiration, and the basis for the audience’s familiarity with modern film grammar, is due in great part to Fritz Lang. Spies deserves mandatory viewing for both film students, and anyone that appreciates the power of visual storytelling.