Guns! Bombs! Assassinations! Blackmail! Fritz Lang invents the escapist super-spy thriller! To seize a set of political documents the evil Haghi dispatches the seductive agents Kitty and Sonya to neutralize a Japanese security man and our own top spy No. 236. (that’s 007 x 33,714.2857!) It’s a top-rank silent winner from the maker of Metropolis.
1928 / B&W /1:33 Silent Aperture / 150 min. / Street Date February 23, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gerda Maurus, Lien Deyers, Willy Fritsch, Lupu Pick, Hertha von Walther, Fritz Rasp, Craighall Sherry, Hans Heinrich von Twardowsky, Gustl Gstettenbaur.
Cinematography Fritz Arno Wagner
Art Directors Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht
Set Designer Edgar G. Ulmer (reported)
Original Music Werner R. Heymann (original) Neil Brand piano score on this disc.
Written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou from her novel
Produced by Erich Pommer
Directed by Fritz Lang
How did Fritz Lang rebound from the biggest UfA film of the 1920s, which became its biggest financial disaster? He made Spies (Spione), a fantastic espionage thriller that favors action and sex over grand themes. Lang had been writing and directing giant two-part epics since 1921. Even his Metropolis looks as if it were intended to be a two-parter, and Aitam-Bar Sagi has found that it was shown that way in at least one foreign country. At 150 minutes Spies is just as long as Metropolis, but it moves so fast that an intermission is just not necessary.
Viewer adjustments are recommended to get cozy with Lang’s brilliant 1928 storytelling style, which uses some dated narrative structures — or are they? When his camera swings into action, Lang convinces us that he’s the original source for every super-spy gimmick and trope we ever saw. He definitely exploits the sex fantasy of seductive agents defeating their espionage targets by sleeping with them. Spies works two slinky Mata Haris into its 2.5- hour running time.
A mystery mastermind seeks to undermine Germany by securing details of a secret agreement with the government of Japan. Secret service chief Burton Jason (English actor Craighall Sherry) is shocked when his undercover secret agent No. 326 (Willy Fritsch) unmasks Jason’s own secretary Vincent (Hans Heinrich con Twardowski of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Hangmen Also Die!) as a double agent. No. 326 is on the case immediately, but neither he nor Jason realizes that a huge intelligence network is monitoring their every move, as well as every move of the Japanese security chief Doctor Matsumoto (Romanian actor Lupu Pick). The fiend is Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge of Metropolis), a cripple in a wheelchair who doubles as the chief of a large bank, and has other disguises as well.
Haggis employs two seductress-agents skilled at kiss-and-betray missions. The irresistible Kitty (Lien Deyers) disguises herself as a girl abandoned on the street, to insinuate herself into the confidence of Dr. Matsumoto. Haghi dispatches the sophisticated Russian temptress Sonya Baranikowa (Gerda Maurus) to buy some secrets from a foreign Army Officer, Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp of Diary of a Lost Girl). But Haghi doesn’t anticipate that No. 326 and Sonya will fall in love. Haghi must risk everything to secure the Japanese treaty AND make sure that No. 326 dies in the bargain.
If viewers can accept some pacing and emphasis issues, Spies rewards as an exciting action show that connects the thrills of silent serials with later superspy epics. Fritz Lang was an old hand at such material. Every new spy thriller he made was ahead of the curve: Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die!, Ministry of Fear. Lang loves narrowly defined genre characters. Forget literary allusions or psychological depth — psychology is just another weapon utilized by the villains. Lang reportedly told Jacques Rivette that “there is only pure sensation, character development doesn’t exist.” Here that formula works well.
Thefts, blackmail and murder are Haghi’s specialty. The science fiction trappings of his secret lair hidden within a bank point forward to the arch-villains of James Bond fantasies. The style of comic books (and silent serials) is applied to older espionage plots, with an added dose of sex and violence. No specific political message is conveyed. That a bank is the locus of criminal evil is not stressed, but German citizens of the inflationary ‘twenties would surely note that connection. Lang and von Harbou again filter foreign cultures into the story. Japan is exotic and elegant, as witness Matsumoto’s love for the ‘innocent’ viper Kitty, who plots his demise as she seduces him in a borrowed Japanese robe. On the other hand, the apartment of the alluring Sonya is decorated with Russian religious icons that point to a ‘decent’ woman beneath the ruthless façade. She has allied herself to Haghi to avenge the deaths of her Family. The dynamic of their relationship is a lot like the bickering conflict between Ray Walston and Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees — he respects her talent and she fears his power.
Lang’s visual grammar may have dated but it functions quite well on its own terms. Instead of fast montages to depict Haghi’s crimes he gives us individual storybook images, distilling the rifling of a safe or the shooting of an auto courier into one or two shots each. A radio tower broadcasts Haghi’s secret commands. When he blackmails the wealthy Lady Leslane (Hertha von Walther) with a photo of her reclining in a negligee in an opium den, a cut from the photo takes us to a seemingly unnecessary matching live-action shot of Leslane in the doss-house. Why? It represents Lady Leslane’s immediate memory of her scandalous sin. When Dr. Matsumoto finds Kitty soaking wet in a doorway beneath his apartment, her tearful story of mistreatment cuts directly to a father with a whip, and a drunken mother sitting on the edge of a bed. Lang is substituting visuals for dialogue: Kitty must be describing her father’s cruel face and her mother’s sordid surroundings.
These narrative insertions seem archaic, yet are still around today. Quentin Tarantino often uses a similar construction as narrative graffiti, interrupting the action of his violent comic-book fantasies for an ‘exposition dump’ flashback sidebar moment. For Tarantino it’s self-conscious mocking of the instant backstories that substitute for character depth, the outrageous flashback ‘explanations’ of today’s comic book movies.
Lang’s movie is packed with dynamic situations and intrigue. Sonya snags No. 326’s attention by begging him to hide her from the cops, a ploy that shouldn’t fool an agent of his experience. There are some clever escapes, etc., but the big action is saved for spectacular set pieces. Lang and Harbou believe in the very modern concept of escalating action climaxes, all interlinked like dominoes. Jeopardy situations overlap and feed into each other. A trip to arrest Colonel Jellusic leads to a fiendish plan to wreck an entire train just to kill one man. A clerk’s diligence provides the clue that unmasks Haghi and leads to a terrific raid on his headquarters. Imprisoned by Haghi, Sonya is lashed to a chair in a sealed room, under the threat of poison gas and the grenades of Haghi’s henchmen. That action is cross-cut with the bank raid, as Jason’s experts frantically try to locate an entrance into the hidden headquarters. Architecture, high jeopardy and a countdown to Sonya’s execution guarantee an exciting finish… after which Spies still has some tricks left up its sleeve. I’d have to say that Lang’s film surely inspired a lot of espionage fiction, perhaps even some by writers Grahame Greene and Eric Ambler.
Audiences of 1928 may have been caught up in the credibility of Spies, but Lang’s commitment to realism only goes so far. He and von Harbou still favor moments of overdone expressionist acting: their actors externalize their inner characters by striking poses. Sonya plays part of a scene with one hand cocked on her hip, which says, “I’m a dangerous, sexual woman!” Haghi has a habit of curling one hand into a claw to externalize his evil. Sonya and No. 326’s love scene consists of wild looks of ecstasy and joyously discreet handholding, albeit top-grade emotional handholding. A montage shows the afternoon turning to night. When we cut back to the lovers they’re not in bed, but instead still holding hands. No doubt about it, they’re going steady for sure.
For the violent scenes Lang favors blunt physicality. A government agent bursting into Haghi’s headquarters brandishes two pistols in a rigid pose, evoking images from Hong Kong crime cinema, or maybe Looney Tunes’ Yosemite Sam. When Sonya is bound to the chair and awaiting death, she writhes and strains at the ropes like a rabbit caught in a trap. A fight breaks out in the room, and she stretches out her one free foot to prevent a villain from reaching his pistol. About halfway through this scene I realized that the sight of Gerda Maurus arching and contorting is in itself pretty erotic: I should think someone into bondage might find her a real distraction.
Actresses Gerda Maurus and Lien Deyers appear to have been Fritz Lang discoveries. Lang has a thing for bee-stung lipstick lips and pouting poses. Deyers has a Lolita-like kitten appeal. She actually licks her lips at the prospect of sexually enslaving the Japanese diplomat.
Gerda Maurus is a cool looker with a classic profile; she could have been an acceptable Hitchcock blonde. Her perm is a stylish Teutonic helmet that holds together even through floods and explosions. When offered a chair in Haghi’s office, both women instead sprawl attractively across his desk. As she can play both wanton and pious, Ms. Maurus is a not-bad replacement for Lang’s ideal Brigitte Helm, who likely never wanted to see the director again after the months of torture filming Metropolis. Willy Fritsch was an established leading man in glamorous roles, so Lang introduces him in disguise as an unshaven street bum. He’d use both leading actors immediately again in his Woman in the Moon, along with a child actor. Gustl Gstettenbaur.
According to the impressive documentary on the disc, Spies was filmed in a big rush. Special set constructions feature in the train wreck and bank raid sequences; I’m not sure if UfA routinely constructed new street sets for individual productions. The hidden spy headquarters set, with its central shaft crisscrossed by staircases, is said to have been designed by Edgar G. Ulmer. The orthochromatic film once again makes light eyes seem silvery and lit from within. But it also darkens the actresses’ gums, sometimes making it look as if they have gaps between their teeth.
What’s the appeal of Spies? Most every subplot in the story involves sex and death. Three of Dr. Matsumoto’s agents are intercepted off-screen by Haghi’s killers, their fates represented only by the evidence of the packages they were carrying, one of which is bloodstained. The three appear to Matsumoto as ghosts complete with weird eye makeup, in a horror-hallucination of guilt that looks forward to the phantom Mabuse ‘ghost demon’ in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The movie has no fewer than three suicides. One Haghi minion is so in awe of his leader that he’d rather die than cross him. When the bank is raided, several of Haghi’s gunmen follow orders and remain behind as suicide troops. Waiting for the cops to break in, they’re completely relaxed, their guns loose in their hands. Working for Haghi is like belonging to a death cult.
The ruthless Haghi is a slightly less outrageous version of Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, converted to look like Lenin or Trotsky. In some respects he’s still a comic book character, what with his ingenious disguises and the not-so-credible ability to maintain two full professional identities while simultaneously running an organized crime racket that has made him ‘richer than Ford.’ Haghi is introduced when an agent is shot dead right in Jason’s office, the moment before he can reveal Haghi’s identity. Jason stammers out the Mabuse-like question “Almighty God — what power is at play here?” and Haghi’s face appears: Ich!
The ‘escapist’ call to chaos in Spies is not something confined to the past. The idea of an outrageously impossible murder pulled off right in the office of the security chief would later be picked up by the paranoid conspiracy crime-noirs of the 1950s, where criminals commit creepy crimes that an earlier era would have ascribed to fantasy villains like Fantomas. In Phil Karlson’s 1955 Tight Spot, snipers kill a government witness right on the steps of a courthouse, even when the man is protected by F.B.I. agents. As life seemingly imitates art, the ‘Forces of Good” were similarly powerless in the assassinations of the Kennedys, not to mention the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald while in police custody.
I think that people now believe that a criminal mastermind, a Mafia, hostile foreign agents or a political conspiracy can reach out and kill anybody, anywhere. When Haghi causes a train collision in a railway tunnel, it’s a super-crime, an act of terror aimed at killing only one man, but with collateral damage in the slaying of additional innocents. Most of today’s warfare is basically the exchange of acts of terror. Some terror events are nothing less than super-crimes committed by fanatic minions. Dr. Mabuse’s terrible “Empire of Crime” has become a reality.
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of Spies (Spione) is an earlier restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm Murnau-Stiftung that has seen a previous release on DVD. The picture is of course brighter and sharper; we get a better look at the dozen or so original Metropolis posters (each now worth a small fortune) pasted on a wall. As with the Kino release of Woman in the Moon no full-on digital restoration has taken place. The show looks very good, but there are light scratches and bits of schmutz here and there. The image is rather steady but not rock solid. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were revisited in the next ten years or so. Even with the incredible restorations performed on pictures like Faust and Die Nibelungen, unlimited resources are not available for this work.
Before now most audiences had only seen the 90-minute version done for the American MGM release. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum thinks that, after the debacle with the massacre of Metropolis, Lang supervised this cut-down himself, retaining much of the flavor of the original. But not the continuity — Rosenbaum says that for the shorter version the scene where a spy steals the text of a telegram with a special trick was repositioned much earlier.
Fritz Lang fans will love the included feature-length documentary on the making of Spies. The Wilhelm Murnau people use old film footage and many stills to delve into every aspect of the show, including its popular release. They even have photos of special theater advertising designs, and a group of ‘Spies’ dispatched to promote the picture, like sandwich men but dressed in dark coats and hats. The excellent show was seen previously only on an English Blu-ray.
A last rarity is an original German trailer, which lasts a full five minutes. It appears to be made largely from alternate takes. The stereophonic piano music score by Neil Brand is an excellent job, hitting all the story’s surprises and having fun with music from phonographs, etc., The first Mabuse film placed a fantasy casino in a restaurant. In this show a bizarre nightclub doubles as an arena for a professional boxing bout. As soon as the winner is declared, the patrons rush onto the dance floor, and the piano score seques into a brisk foxtrot.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Very Good +
Supplements: Documentary Spies, A Small Film with Lots of Action (72 min), original German trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Inter-titles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 17, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson