Spies (aka, Spione) (Fritz Lang, 1928)
It’s a typically paranoid Langian world of disguise and deception, as Secret Service undercover Agent 36 (Willy Fritsch) fends off all manner of conniving seductress and seemingly ubiquitous double agent and spy in his mission to root out the hidden mastermind of a powerful espionage organization, the corrupt international banker Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who is out for nothing less than world domination.
With Lang’s career in more than a bit of disrepair after the titanic-sized financial failure of his 1927 now-acknowledged masterpiece Metropolis (seems a matter of course, doesn’t it – show me a cinematic masterwork and I’ll show you a film that got shat on upon its initial release), the maniacal whirlwind director was forced to considerably pare back his production costs for his next one… yet with nary a hint of temperance to his (nor his great screenwriter collaborator — and wife – Thea Von Harbou’s) creativity, as this action spy thriller’s narrative canvas remains as ambitious in narrative scale as his (and their) earlier brilliant quasi-expressionistic crime film Dr Mabuse: The Gambler from 1922, if more judicious in execution. Instead of staggering costs in production (which achieved monumental brilliance, if not always great box office results), Lang cleverly approached his production execution, with a lot of often frenzied close ups and mediums to create an impression of larger events happening rather than always showing us and an evocative modern style to the production design (the impressive and foreboding cross-linked bank staircases where a culminating fight occurs, for instance is a standout) with carefully ornate and angled set dressings, matched up with for-the-time manageable running time of 2 ½ hours (which, of course, still translates as unendurable infinity for most of today’s viewers, under an unceasing barrage as they are from a capitalist society determined to never let a moment of contemplation settle in too long before the next push on to another manufactured impulse to consume a product… and then another… and another…).
It’s a world where few can be trusted and almost none of the characters end up being who they initially present themselves as (starting immediately with Agent 36 introduced as a homeless man, all the way through the various spies crossing and double crossing each other and the nefarious women seducing their prey to get information), with a Machiavellian omniscient uber-supervillian taken straight from the Mabusian mold (played by the original Mabuse himself, no less, the usually unforgettable Lang-regular Klein-Rogge) who not only watches over all (from a wheelchair, which ultimately is also revealed as a ruse), with his pawns and henchmen serving his diabolical needs, but regularly changes his disguise (culminating in the wonderfully realized absurdist finale with him as a theatrical clown), it seems obvious Lang and Harbou went back to draw from the Mabuse well to try and drum up another financial success (which they in fact did).
Spies is credited as a forerunner to, and template for, the entire espionage thriller genre and the connections to Ian Fleming’s James Bond creation, and the film series that followed, are quite apparent. Agent 36 might not wield as mighty a masculine sword (I’ll call it that) to literally ‘convince’ a female henchman – erp, hench_woman_ – into rejecting lesbianism as Sean Connery’s 007 did with Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, but he does manage to get the beautiful Russian spy Baranikowa (Gerda Maurus) to fall in love with him after she initially seduces him (in which 36 is set up to believe he’s saved her by killing the abusive lover attacking her and then joining with her to cover up the false murder, a conceit Lang would use again over 30 years later in his last film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse).
More akin to a Lang worldview than the simpler and more comforting good-evil distinction of the standard 007 plot, however, is that as dashing and debonair as Agent 36 is, he’s quite easily manipulated and not particularly successful against the Haghi’s forces. The truth is, looking closely at how it all plays out, the Haghi set-up is much more powerful than that of the Secret Service. If not for the betrayal by Baranikowa leading the good guys directly to her former boss Haghi, there’s no way he would have been caught.
While the director’s themes of paranoia and despair are here, including the dark edges and nihilistic touches, such as not two but three suicides (Lang could never get enough of those, even up to his last film), and the entire thing is impressively constructed (with a nicely choreographed series of action/chase set pieces concluding the film, including both a jarring train wreck and car crash through a hotel front), it’s in comparison with the previously mentioned Dr Mabuse (as well as Lang’s other great silent works) that the film reveals itself as lacking. Perhaps it’s the simple straight-ahead black-and-white nature of the espionage genre itself that Lang was helping to formulate that creates a less powerful resonance. Against a less nightmarish and visionary landscape than the usual Lang creations I was getting used to in re-watching these early silents, the actors themselves don’t do much more than merely competent work. Even Klein-Rogge, as brilliant and powerful a presence as the actor was, can’t really do much with this dehumanized cut-out figure (or that oddly angular haircut they stuck him with) who mostly is stuck behind his desk looking off intently, scheming away as he slowly loses Baranikowa to Agent 36. It’s only when Haghi reveals his supposed useless legs as a charade and plays the clown in a final act of inspired rebellion that he — and the part — come fully alive… but it’s too short lived (no pun intended, if I may chance a bit of a spoiler with this comment).
If Spies wasn’t a Lang film, I’d perhaps give it more credit. There’s certainly much to admire about it as I said… but seeing what he was offering up at that time (just the year before was Metropolis, for god’s sake!)… I guess I chalk it up to him being a victim of his own brilliance. Spies is well worth a viewing… but if you’re only up for one silent German crime film from one of the early cinematic masters creating a fascinatingly dark and paranoid surreal portrait of a country about to descend into sheer madness? Stick with Mabuse… even if it’s over four hours long, it’s well worth it. Spies is fun, sure, but it’s a mere piece of candy cane from a director who was offering so much more.