Fritz Lang creates a paranoid and deadly world of spy vs. spy in this fun genre picture. Willy Fritsch plays No. 326, an unnamed agent who is charged with bringing down a sophisticated network of spies, assassins and saboteurs led by Rudolf Klein-Rogge.
Secret agent man
Fritz Lang was on fire during the silent era. (Not literally.) After making his debut as director in the late 1910s, he pumped out a series of artistic (if not commercial) hits. Metropolis, Die Nibelungen and Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler are all considered icons of Weimar cinema. To be honest, though, I prefer my Lang a little… pulpier. Now all of his films did show at least some touch of pulp (a heaping cupful in Mabuse’s case) but with Spies, Lang just sort of threw caution to the wind and made a movie that was actually kind of fun. Fun? In a Fritz Lang movie? I know!
Before we begin, I should note that Fritz Lang is one of the most studied and discussed directors in the history of film. As a result, I will be focusing less on the technical, which has been covered extensively elsewhere, and more on how this film works as an entry into a popular genre. I also have a theory that, like silent comedy, German silent films have been analyzed to death. Let’s just sit back, relax and enjoy this as a movie. Let’s face it, it’s not often that I get to have fun with a silent Fritz Lang review. I’m living this one up!
The film opens with a stylish montage of the German intelligence bureau under attack. Ambassadors and cabinet ministers are assassinated, valuable secret files are stolen, the intelligence community is in an uproar. Spies have been dispatched to get to the bottom of these crimes but they end up dead as well.
The head of intelligence, Jason (Craighall Sherry), is under attack in the press and under pressure to sort the mess out. He calls in No. 326 (Willy Fritsch) one of his last surviving top agents. While they are speaking, 326 unmasks a spy with a miniature camera in Jason’s own office. The spy has a cyanide capsule and they get no information out of him but Jason and 326 congratulate themselves on preventing their unseen enemy from taking a picture of 326’s face.
Now we get a look at the villain of the film. Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Lang’s go-to baddie) owns a large bank but it is just a cover for his secret headquarters. His spies are criminals, victims of blackmail and ordinary people hoping to make a buck. It’s not a question of who in the city is working for Haghi, it’s a question of who isn’t.
It is instantly clear that Haghi doesn’t just have plan B, he has plans C, D, E, F and G too. His agent in Jason’s office may be gone but others have snapped pictures of No. 326; they have also filmed him and taken his thumbprint for good measure. Haghi has a card printed up with pictures of 326 from several different angles. He has a plan.
Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) is an officer from an unnamed Central European nation. He is also set to betray his country in order to please Sonja (Gerda Maurus), who is one of Haghi’s agents. Rasp overplays outrageously but I can’t be angry with him. There’s something splendid in his overacting. (Is he spoofing the intensely spoofable Roy D’Arcy?)
Haghi calls in Sonja, gives her the photos of 326 and tells her to do her thing. So the villains are villaining, the heroes are trying desperately to catch up, there are spy gadgets in abundance and the cinematography is amazing! What could possibly go wrong?
The love story, that’s what.
The problem is that we have a terrific spy thriller boiling away on the stove and then Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou essentially toss a pitcher of ice water into the thing with a melodramatic, underdeveloped love story.
If you have seen any spy film, I don’t care if it was made in 1912 or 2012, you know exactly how this will go down. Sonja toys with 326 but then finds herself in love with him after having known him a grand total of twenty minutes. Haghi is annoyed and locks her away. Then the head of Japanese intelligence, Masimoto (Lupu Pick in yellowface), informs 326 of Sonja’s real identity and allegiance, which sends him into despair. A droopy spy is not a fun spy, believe you me.
Perhaps sensing that the romance-o-matic plot was a bit silly, Lang and von Harbou attempted to compensate. Sonja’s instantaneous adoration is explained by stating that No. 326 is a dead ringer for her dead brother. Honey, I have met people who look just like one of my brothers and I can assure you that it is not an aphrodisiac. Plus, this plot element opens an incestuous can of worms that is immediately dropped. Sloppy.
If the plot had simply taken a nice slice of the moping time and turned it into actual character development and a more natural romance, the story would have benefited enormously. As it stands, we have two purported master spies who are terrible at their job. No. 326 cannot believe that a honey trap would actually be used (in spite of it being established as a common tactic) and Sonja becomes incapable of hiding her emotion, screaming her love from the rooftops whilst striking messianic poses.
In short, Spies comes to a screeching halt for much of the second act. Good thing the climax and finale make up for it!
With Sonja out of the running, Haghi sends Kitty (Lien Deyers) on a new mission. Masimoto has a secret treaty between Japan and Germany in his possession (we all know what a good idea that is) and Haghi means to steal it. Masimoto seems to know every spy trick in the book. Can Kitty succeed in finding a crack in his defenses?
I am not going to give too much away after the midpoint. This is one of those films that plays its twists very cleverly and it’s so much fun to see them unveiled that I would not dream of taking that pleasure away from other viewers. I will say this much: the twists work because they are completely in character and because Lang did not resort to obvious cheating in order to conceal them. This is the best kind of surprise because if we were fooled, we were fooled fair and square. I will simply say that the last twenty minutes of the film and the last five minutes in particular could go toe-to-toe against any modern spy flick and emerge the victor.
Spies reflects Lang’s utter fascination with the inner workings of criminal organizations—and not just the glamorous stuff either. An assassination and the theft of valuable papers? Those can be found in every espionage picture. What sets Lang’s work apart is how he shows the papers passing their way through the bureaucratic maze of Haghi’s organization. And because the director’s fascination is contagious, we find ourselves intrigued and the banal becomes both interesting and stylish. Lang’s obsession with the fact that everyone— petty criminals to masterminds, beat cops to superspies—has to turn in paperwork would bear brilliant fruit in M. The concept would later be used for playful irony in Sidney Furie’s underrated anti-James Bond spy thriller The Ipcress File.
I remember a few years ago, some inner communications of al-Qaeda were released. Reporters marveled that these messages included corporate-style job applications, requisitions for office equipment and departmental budgets. I can’t help but think that Fritz Lang would have appreciated the humor of violent terrorists having to save receipts for bars of soap in order to be reimbursed by the group’s accounting department.
Lang’s devotion to paperwork remains steady right down to the end of the film, with the climax hinging on a bureaucrat discovering a clerical error. Sure, guns and romance and shoe leather have a part but real spy work comes down to telegrams, microfilm and the serial numbers of bank notes.
Lang also shows the collateral damage of the spy vs. spy games. While most British and American spy flicks fail to focus on innocents killed in the line of fire unless they are sexy women, pals of the hero or otherwise used to drive the action, Lang demonstrates the human cost of smashing trains, smuggling treaties and other dramatic activities.
Spies also shows the cost of failing to keep up with the times. While Haghi has multimedia files on enemy agents and a sophisticated listening station that picks up broadcasts from around the nation, Masimoto is still relying on copying keys with clay and hiding important documents inside newspapers. Jason keeps dossiers on enemy agents but rather than slickly printed cards, he has them pasted in leather photo albums. He probably has photos of his grandkids in the same sort of album at home.
While Lang’s technique is impeccable and his visuals imaginative, he had one major flaw as a director. Actors and actresses did sometimes give wonderful performances in his films but he was not really an actor’s director. For example, he wound up Gustav Fröhlich to near hysterics in Metropolis and it wasn’t until I saw Joe May’s Asphalt that I realized the kid could act.
While the more cinematic character of Haghi allows Klein-Rogge to chew the scenery while keeping his dignity, Fritz Rasp’s hamminess is a quirky diversion and Lien Deyers’ scheming vamp works well as a cartoon, both Fritsch and Maurus could have benefited from toning it down a notch. Lupu Pic isn’t terrible but his presence is distracting, especially when he stands next to actual Asian performers.
I know someone will probably say that Lang totally meant to make No. 326 and Sonja boring, so there! Checkmate, smarty-pants! Well, even if that was the case, Lang outsmarted himself because the heroic leads are clearly the weakest link.
However, even with its flaws, the film still offers A+ entertainment. Spies manages the feat of being both cinematic and creating the illusion of realism. While the love story almost drowns the middle of the film, the climax more than makes up for it. It is remarkable to see so many ingredients now deemed essential for a spy movie to be firmly in place this early in the game. From the numbered agent to the criminal mastermind to the fiery set pieces, this spy film has it all and it presents it extremely well.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
You will want to see the restored version from the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, which has been released on DVD and Bluray in region 1/A by Kino Lorber. This version replaces footage that was snipped out by censors and the restoration is gorgeous. The DVD has a score by Donald Sosin, while the Bluray has one by Neil Brand. Both scores are excellent, I am happy to report, and so either version of the film will provide an enjoyable viewing experience. (The version currently available for streaming from Amazon has the Sosin score.)