A Film of its Time: Spies, Fritz Lang’s Enduring Espionage Thriller
By Jeremy Carr.
Fritz Lang’s Spies gets underway with a burst of kinetic energy, its first 15 minutes or so a case study in the advancement, endurance, and perhaps surprising vibrancy of late silent cinema. Released in 1928, this crime-thriller has a rapid-fire opening that drops the viewer headlong into a coordinated scheme of mass theft and murder, with a temporarily indistinct rationale and repercussions yet to be seen, save for the international pandemonium. This is a world hinging on the actions of traitors and informants, players and pawns, and people bought and sold as part of a widespread criminal conspiracy. Guiding the enterprise is Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), bank manager to the public, devious mastermind behind the scenes. The ostensible goal of his unlawful undertaking is the attainment of a signed Japanese treaty, but like Hitchcock (before it was ever associated with the master of suspense), this document is a sly MacGuffin, the object of desire but ultimately a trivial plot device to get the ball rolling.
And roll it does. Spies may have a more sedate midsection, but for its opening and closing numbers, Lang infuses into his film a visual bombardment of movement, dramatic camera angles, and a breathless tempo amplifying his knack for textured, layered composition and Fritz Arno Wagner’s fine cinematography. During its action sequences, the film is a dynamic medley that directly reflects the hustle and bustle of a Weimar-era metropolis. With Spies, Lang may have scaled back his expressionistic form, slightly favoring the encroaching naturalism of New Objectivity, but this film is no less stylized. Aided by the art direction of Otto Hunte and Karl Vollbrecht, the intricate, multileveled underworld sets are particularly impressive. Otherwise, Spies is situated in an urban milieu of fine dining and entertainment, speed and sexuality, vanity and decadence, drugs and drink, and, above all (at least as far as this film is concerned) increasingly hi-tech criminality. Revealing the pace of the age, Spies concludes with barreling trains and automobile chases, race-against-the-clock conventions that were already familiar to cinema audiences but were only now real-world reflections of a surrounding modern momentum. At the same time, mounting globalization has brought nations together and has left them mutually vulnerable, which is also something Spies exploits to great effect, building on a sense of interconnected global suspense.
With his position at a bank, Haghi emerges as a foresighted criminal who sees the advantages of economics as an intermediary for crime, and vice versa. Unlike the Japanese couriers who kill themselves for the national dishonor of losing the packets said to contain the treaty, he operates with no indication of collective patriotic or cultural pride; his is a solitary, purely selfish endeavor. Yet for all of the frenetic movement of Spies, Haghi, ironically, appears to be wheelchair-bound, forced to guide his minions and henchmen through voiced directives and automated controls. As he is planted at his office command center, the individuals and their respective tasks are like extensions of Haghi’s crafty conceptions, again reinforcing the notion of long-range communication and management. Providing further amplitude of his mediated reach, hidden microphones and cameras give Haghi eyes and ears beyond his own limited mobility. Related to this is an emphasis on technical gadgetry, the espionage equipment used by the characters shown in notably close detail by Lang. In this brave new world, however, as expressed by the multiple close-ups of characters curiously holding these devices, with the technology comes the fascination of possibility and the paranoia of surveilling implementation.
Lang, who always staged authoritative figures with exceptional panache, frames Haghi as one who is assured and efficient and who, through various manipulative channels, assembles an obedient army to do his bidding. Among those under his thumb are a small sisterhood of female figures who, embodying the Germanic notions of the New Woman and magnifying their radical liberation in a fairly negative fashion, manage to ensnare their male victims through sensuously feminine wiles. Most prominently there is Sonya Baranilkowa (Gerda Maurus), assigned to infiltrate the inner workings of a secret agent known only as No. 326 (Willy Fritsch). All is going well until the two fall in love. She is reluctantly romantic and the film itself takes a hesitant pause from the action to focus on the burgeoning relationship between the two. Compared to the other subordinates on either side of the law, the humanity Lang instils in this couple makes them more than just genre figureheads, even if we assume for a while they are both working an angle appropriate to their respective tasks.
Written by Fritz Lang’s wife and frequent collaborator Thea von Harbou, who was simultaneously writing a novel of the story, Spies gains its immediacy through not only the aforementioned tactile features of advancing modernity, but also in its sociopolitical ripped-from-the-headlines approach to crime and its self-conscious approach to Lang’s own recent cinema. As Lang biographer puts it, somewhat derisively, “The film is like a cross between [Lang’s] Die Spinnen  and Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler , joining the juvenile spy nonsense of the former (invisible ink, buttonhole cameras, periscopes, and peepholes), with the solemn treason and telling real-life details of the latter….” Aside from the explicit examples (posters for Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis hung on the wall during one sequence), Spies is a film thoroughly aware of its own creation. From the casting of Rudolf Klein-Rogge as yet another malevolent figure of authoritarian power, to the dashing Fritsch as the hero (wryly introduced here against type as a temporarily shabby, disheveled man on the street), Lang keeps Spies in a rather comfortable zone of genre familiarity. The chief exception to this is stage actress Maurus, who makes her film debut in Spies and, perhaps indicative of the affair she and Lang would soon have, is given a radiant screen treatment. After the nearly disastrous release of Metropolis, this conformity was very much by design, with the Ufa powers that be insisting on an economical and commercially viable production. Though Spies was therefore something like a throwaway feature to get Lang back on his feet between sci-fi epics (his next project, his final silent film, was 1929’s Woman in the Moon), it was nevertheless a success and remains an engaging entry in the director’s first-rate catalog of German crime cinema.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Vague Visages, and Cut Print Film.
Spies is available on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray, which also features Spies: A Small Film with Lots of Action, a documentary about the film’s production and restoration, and the movie’s original German trailer.