In 1928, Fritz Lang was at the height of his powers. His previous three films were all critical and box office successes, culminating in Metropolis (1927), the most ambitious and expensive production of the silent era, as well as the grandest achievement in the style known as German Expressionism. In short, Lang had earned a place among the few geniuses—Griffith, Chaplin, Murnau—working in the still relatively young art of the motion picture. But with his newest film Spies, Lang refused to repeat himself.
On one hand, Spies aspires to the same epic scale as Metropolis: the original Spies was nearly three hours long, though the only version available on video is a 144 minute version. It possesses the same Langian themes and motifs that appear in Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and Metropolis: controlling despots; subversive, subterranean networks operating beneath the modern city. On the other hand, the film possesses a uniquely mischievous attitude toward the spies and saboteurs genre that it uses for not only dramatic, but also comic effect. Where Dr. Mabuse mirrored the sinister mood of the Weimer era in which it was produced, Spies is intoxicatingly devilish fun, replete with invisible ink, coconut-bombs, and even a clown act for a climactic finish.
The film’s story centers on Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a ruthless spy ring mastermind who conceals his nefarious activities as a trusted bank owner. The Secret Service enlists secret agent Number 326 (Willy Fritsch) to capture Haghi, but the latter knows the spy’s identity and sends a young Russian woman named Sonja (Gerda Maurus) to seduce him and block his attempt to infiltrate the organization. However, Sonja falls in love with the dashing Number 326, and soon finds herself fighting against Haghi and his plan to sabotage a Japanese peace treaty.
Opening with an exhilarating montage of various thefts and assassinations orchestrated by Haghi, Spies possesses a frantic yet controlled rhythm due to precise and complex editing, as well as the actors’ ceaselessly urgent movement within each shot (Number 326’s dyspepsic boss, with his contorted, exasperated facial expressions, makes for a particularly delightful “never sit still” sight gag).
Moving beyond Expressionism (Metropolis is frequently regarded as that movement’s endpoint), Lang demonstrates his brilliant command of mise-en-scene and composition. He frames a prison’s multiple levels and criss-crossing staircases as a matrix of warring vectors and planes:
And Lang brilliantly employs phantasmagoric superimpositions of rising suns and fluttering documents when dead comrades haunt Japanese official Masimoto (Lupu Pick) from beyond the grave.
Masimoto commits seppuku after he lets state secrets fall into the hands of a come-hither temptress; the battle between love and duty becomes Spies’ major theme. In this regard the conscientious and strong-willed Sonja stands as the film’s central figure. Her loyalty to Number 326 conflicts with her father and brother’s execution by sworn “enemies” now targeted by Hahgi. Even Haghi himself seems to fall prey to the irrationalities of the heart. It would certainly make more sense for him to crush Sonja once he learns of her betrayal, but he continues to keep her close out of a deep-rooted affection.
Looking further into Spies’ high-spirited contest of espionage one-upmanship, one discovers the intense anxiety concerning the deception, duplicity, and paranoia inherent in modern urban life. With its unmanageable populations and labyrinthine layouts, the modern city makes possible an anonymity that frays traditional social models and breeds vice, trickery, and violence.
In Lang’s later film M, which focuses on a citywide hunt for a child murderer, such unease is expressed in the most explicitly dark terms (Peter Lorre’s killer moves about unnoticed, striking in broad daylight). In Spies, underlying themes of “trust no one” and “nothing is as it seems” are subtly channeled into clever gags, as when Fritsch gets introduced as an unshaven bum, or when Kitty (Liene Dyers) suckers Masimoto by dressing as a homeless runaway straight out of a Dickens novel.
It is within the chaotic, sprawling, amorphous city that a man of many faces and miniscule scruples like Haghi can prosper. Though the villain’s machinations are eventually thwarted and order restored, it’s more than significant that Haghi goes out on his own terms. Dressing up as a clown and hamming it up in front of an audience of swells whom he seeks to hold in his power, Haghi shoots himself (suicide instead of capture is a frequent motif in the film) and yells “Curtain!” to a rousing ovation. Thus Spies concludes on a fantastically ironic note. In a world where political and social warfare is conducted as an elaborate farce of false identities and masked allegiances, even death must ultimately become a “keep ‘em laughing” performance. For the naïve, decadent, and unassuming populace, it’s just another evening’s entertainment.
Michael Joshua Rowin writes about cinema for The L Magazine, Cineaste, Artforum, LA Weekly, and Reverse Shot.