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It begins like any good spy thriller should, with a fast-paced action-filled set up, here done in a style so clipped and cryptic it leaves us breathless. That there’s a confession in the first few minutes only adds to the intrigue. We might know the culprit, but the harried good guys on screen are bewildered to the point of hysteria. How will this be resolved and what plot twists are in store? 

Scriptwriter Thea von Harbou, director Lang’s wife at the time, based the idea for Spione (Spies, 1928) (and her simultaneously published novel) on the All-Russian Co-Operative Society (ARCOS) – a trade commission whose London office also turned out to be a front for a Soviet spy ring. When Britain’s MI5 raided the ARCOS headquarters in 1927 Soviet agents were in the basement behind a sealed door with no door handle, madly burning files. After the police made it inside they had to wrangle any remaining papers still being tossed into the incinerator. Accusatory headlines from both sides were splashed across newspapers around the world, unleashing a series of events that culminated with Britain and the USSR breaking off relations. 

Spione’s opening sequence ups the real-life stakes, with close-ups on a thief’s hands in skin-tight rubber gloves cracking a safe and purloining an official-looking document; next he’s riding hard on a motorcycle cackling malevolently. Cut to a diplomatic pouch poached in a violent drive-by and the minister of trade shot in the head. The plot continues to thicken, with a sudden switch to a street low-life summoned to a local police station, which itself turns out to be a front for the headquarters of the secret service. When he exposes an enemy agent in the office of the chief he’s also revealing himself to be Agent no. 326 (played by the cocky, suave Willy Fritsch). As he sits back in his chair, still in handcuffs, revelling in the unmasking, the audience can finally sit back too, and settle in for the two-plus hours of whatever comes next. Even privy to the initial big reveal we don’t know much, except nothing is as it seems and no one is who they appear to be. 

The modern international espionage caper had its primordial iteration in Fritz Lang’s first project after Metropolis. Fresh off his budget-busting masterpiece (and box-office disappointment) that brought Germany’s greatest film studio to its knees, Fritz Lang was now, relatively speaking, on his own. Set up in his own production company but with an Ufa distribution deal, Lang was under pressure to deliver a hit and the studio sent a man over to make sure the thing didn’t get out of hand. A memo reads: “All production details should be spelled out as precisely as possible and recorded in files so that constant supervision of Mr. Lang’s production is possible and cost overruns can be prevented.”1 (Fun!) 

That it was made with some economy seems obvious in the rare location shooting and spare set design, which Lang used to the film’s advantage, staging a chase through city streets and a heart-rattling train wreck that shows no trains actually crashing (one can imagine Hitchcock watching this scene and getting more ideas). Erich Kettelhut who designed the mythical world of Lang’s Die Nibelungen and the futuristic cityscape of Metropolis thought his former director would heed no constraint, saying about von Harbou and Lang working out their next film while the last one was still wrapping up: “The Ufa crisis did not exist for them. They made their plans as if everything would continue into the future in its old way.”2 Whether Lang was on his best behaviour for Spione, budget-wise anyway, or it was the plan all along, it turned out to be a durable formula with echoes in the street-shot paranoia noirs of the U.S. Red Scare and the clean lines of the vast puppetmaster lairs that populated American and British spy thrillers in the 1960s and ’70s. The plot is elaborate, so not much else has to be. 

Lang had quite a bit of practice already, making The Spiders (Die Spinnen, 1919–1920), with its world-trekking treasure-hunter and the network of nefarious forces out to foil him, and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922), about a tyrannical crime lord who will stop at nothing to steal millions – a model for Haghi, Spione’s’ diabolical banker (Lang knew where real evil lurked) played once again by Rudolf Klein-Rogge. But not until Spies are all the elements of the spy thrillers that came after present – villains with a seemingly omnipotent reach, the dapper, sardonic hero, the futuristic gadgetry, a grubby turncoat (played by a creepily moustachioed Fritz Rasp), Russian honeytraps (played by newcomers Gerda Maurus and Lien Deyers), damning kompromat, and a wildcard character whose true allegiance is opaque (Lupu Pick). Then, of course, there’s the uncredited data miners doing work so unglamourous it’s unworthy of screen time, but who show up near the end with the crucial piece of missing information. 

Amid all the action, Spione takes time for some exquisite touches: a velvet-draped, ethereally beautiful Gerda Maurus framed like an Eisenstein type and shot so close you swear you can smell her perfume; a stone-faced nurse standing sentinel by the wheelchair-bound evil mastermind, whose only function, rather incongruously, seems to be lighting his cigarettes (with possibly some indoctrination duties on the side); and Fritsch’s no. 326, introduced unshaven and street-weary, but who takes pains waiting in the police office to carefully brush down the felt of his stained derby hat – a bit of business that hints there might be more to him than there seems. And, there’s Hertha von Walther, with little screen time of her own yet endlessly watchable as she sits imperiously still in the back of an automobile, an equally immobile black terrier on her lap, both with eyes fixed out the window. Soon, this cool exterior will be punctured forever as Haghi is aware of even this carefully orchestrated “drop”.

With Ufa’s promotional help, Spione had a splashy premiere, the Ufa-Palast am Zoo’s marquee tricked out with a gigantic eyeball backlit with strobes. Hans Wollenberg at Lichtbild-Bühne couldn’t say enough good about the film and hailed the long anticipated return of the German suspense film.3 It was the hit everyone needed and Lang did seem to go on rather as he had before, making the final silent spectacle, Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond, 1929), and a two-part sound continuation of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1932–33). But sometimes dastardly plans for world domination are real, and economy would have to be Lang’s new watchword going forward. Even as he cast about in America and complained, he put it to exceptional use, for the most part, exploring the inner darkness that upends smaller spheres rather than tries to overthrow the whole world. As demonstrated by his masterfully done first sound film, M (1931), he’d practice with that, too.

Spione (1928 Germany 150 mins.)

Prod Co: Fritz Lang Film GmbH Prod: Fritz Lang Dir: Fritz Lang Scr: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang Phot: Fritz Arno Wagner Des: Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht
Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Willy Fritsch, Gerda Maurus, Lupu Pick, Fritz Rasp, Hertha von Walther, and Lien Deyers

Endnotes

  1. McMilligan, Patrick, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 135.
  2. McMilligan, p. 134.
  3. Review of Spione, Hans Wollenberg, Lichtbild-Bühne, No. 72, 23 March 1928 https://www.filmportal.de/node/44735/material/607896.

About The Author

Shari Kizirian edits the program books for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

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