5. Spione (1928), directed by Fritz Lang

5. Spione (1928), directed by Fritz Lang

A Late Era Silent Film Devours its Intricate Plot While Pulling a Few Emotional Shortcuts


Frantic, melodramatic and surprisingly complicated, Fritz Lang’s final silent film is one of his most incidentally influential, an espionage thriller predating Jame Bond and Mission Impossible. Though less groundbreaking than Metropolis, it takes just as many steps towards enhancing the narrative potential of cinema with style and grace.

Rating: 8.5/11

In a modern context, films like the German Spione (or, in English, Spies) teach you patience. They remind you the value of a story that spends a lot of time building its plot, so it can wild the fuck out in its last act. But beyond that, a movie like Spione makes you appreciate how much easier it is to convey information these days, in an age where sound and exposition can be so readily employed. Because seriously, when a silent movie has as much plot as this one it’s pretty amazing that any of it makes the least bit of sense.

Spione is a typical spy film, albeit before those were really even a thing – which on its own is pretty impressive. It follows a man we only know as No. 326 (Willy Fritsch) as he tries to uncover a convoluted plot to steal important documents pertaining to international relations. He is approached by a Russian woman named Sonya (Gerda Maurus), who is tasked with collecting tabs on 326 but immediately falls in love with him. Sonya works for Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a mysterious figure whose motives are never fully explained. Yes, it’s clear he wants to obtain a physical copy of a treaty that is being forged between the Japanese and Germans. No, we are never really aware of why he wants this, but it’s the ploy that keeps the movie going, so we roll with it.

Haghi’s plan, as it is, is wildly complex. First of all, along with her task with No. 326, he additionally has Sonya seducing a Colonel who is in the possession of sensitive documents relevant to this Japanese treaty. On one occasion, this Colonel is pursued by a member of the German government, but the agent is thwarted when he tries to read one of the Colonel’s notes which is written in vanishing ink. Elsewhere, the head of the Japanese embassy is deceived by another of Haghi’s henchwomen into letting down his guard so she can steal his copy of the treaty. All the while, Haghi blackmails another woman into revealing delicate information about her husband’s role in the treaty. Still with me?

One of Spione‘s most iconic shots, a grinning man making frantic escape aboard a motorcycle. (UFA)
Haghi himself, throughout the film, wears a number of disguises to suit his situation. When encased in his secret lair, he appears in a wheelchair, perpetually smoking with his dark hair forming a spiky arc around his devious visage. At other times, he poses as the head of a renowned bank, his hair smoothed back and his appearance much softened. Finally, in the film’s primary twist, it becomes clear that Haghi has been posing as an agent for the German secret service all along, dressed as a clown to suit his cover as a spy. In this way, the character of Haghi pre-empts the trope of most spy films that involve elaborate get-ups to shield their characters’ identities. From Mission Impossible to Charlie’s Angels and even TV’s The Americans, the world of espionage in pop culture is largely indebted to this movie.

But there are moments in Spione – German auteur Fritz Lang’s final silent film – that remain far more influential than Haghi’s disguises. For instance, consider the car chase in the movie’s final third. With a camera mounted on the bonnet of a vehicle and the footage drastically sped up, Lang literally puts us in the driver’s seat and propels the movie forward through our eyes. Close to a century on, it’s a technique that still thrills and spikes the pulse. Not to mention, we wouldn’t have the chase scene in The French Connection (one of the best examples in cinema) without this predating it.

Elsewhere, Lang displays a great sense of how to fill a shot to its maximum potential. When 326 and Sonya attend a boxing match at the film’s midpoint, the action in the ring is captured from above. The bird’s-eye view shot is a dynamic choice, especially when the match is interrupted by an eddying swirl of dancing guests. The waltzing pairs appear from all angles of the frame, soon engulfing the shot and shifting the scene in an instant from a violent tone to a mad sort of grace. It’s hard to watch a moment like this and not immediately think of a dozen different musicals that have used the same technique, flooding a pointed scene with an abrupt cluster of movement (just off the top of my head, La La Land harnesses this same trick many times).

Sonya and No. 326, trying to work out if their romance makes any sense (Spoiler: it does not). (UFA)
Still, in such an ambitious picture there are bound to be throwaways. While it doesn’t derail the film as a whole, the sudden, barebones romance that develops between Sonya and No. 326 is pretty hard to swallow. Especially compared with the technical confidence Lang brings to the picture, it’s a shame how simplistic and shallow this plot comes across. Elsewhere, there is a lot of attention given to one Japanese character, who eventually commits ritualistic suicide. It’s an interesting side plot, especially for the reverence that is paid to the character (despite being played by a Polish man), but it does jar very heavily with the rest of the picture.

Still, this shouldn’t detract from Spione‘s obvious merits; though, as I mentioned earlier, this is indeed a film that rewards patience. By necessity, it spends long stretches of time on characters making connections and drawing conclusions that we need to be shown in order to have any idea of what’s happening. In its restored form, Spione runs for close to two and a half hours and, even at its best, it certainly feels that long. But, to be sure, this movie doesn’t feel like a chore so much as an endeavour. There are overlong moments and plot points that will perplex even the most observant viewer but, to its credit, almost 90 years on it still retains a sense of intrigue and erratic creativity. It’s not the best example of silent cinema, nor even the best of Lang’s silent works. Still, there’s a sense of adventure and willingness to push the format past its boundaries that makes Spione stand out and remain, to this day, an engaging, slightly confounding piece of work.

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