Germany (1928) Dir. Fritz Lang
A number of secret and important documents are being routinely stolen by a criminal gang from Russia based in London. They are headed by the evil mastermind Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who is posing as a respectable bank director who has his eyes on a treaty about to be signed by the Japanese. The Secret Service are embarrassed by this spate of thefts under their noses, so the director (Craighall Sherry) entrusts the hunting down and capturing of Haghi to the top agent known only as No 326 (Willy Fritsch). As always Haghi is one step ahead of the authorities and is fully aware of 326 being on his trail so he assigns Sonja Baranikowa (Gerda Maurus) to seduce 326 and take him out. But the plan falls apart when Sonja falls for 326 and can’t bring herself to fulfil her task, forcing Haghi to up the ante.
Fritz Lang has long been admired as a master film maker and innovator, and while his seminal and most well known opus Metropolis is the blueprint for all sci-fi films that followed in its wake, Spione provides the template for many a spy thriller to come. All of the ideas such as mini cameras, hidden microphones and recording devices, underground lairs, booby traps and other familiar accessories that spies and villains alike employ are all here long before the pulp stories of the 30’s and 40’s and of course the arrival of a certain British agent who likes his martini shaken, no stirred.
As with all great espionage thrillers, duplicity and second guessing is the key to the story. For the viewer’s benefit Haghi is revealed as the antagonist almost straight away but as we learn there is much to him than meets the eye. Again he is the template baddie, confined to a wheelchair and sat behind a multipurpose control desk, wears gloves and smokes a hell of a lot. Only the cat is missing. For 326’s introduction we first meet him dressed as tramp as part of a gig to smoke out another traitor in the ranks. Again he is the model spy – suave, debonair, rich and has a loyal and resourceful chauffeur and butler, Franz (Paul Hörbiger) and he manages to win Sonja’s femme fatale heart inside 30 seconds of showing up clean shaven, suited and booted. For modern audiences this may seem like a catalogue of clichés but they need to remember this is where they all originated from.
The story evolves through a number of different threads en route to the frantic finale to keep the viewer guessing although keen and experienced viewers might have some of it figured out early on. The Japanese are in London for the signing of an important treaty which Haghi wants so he blackmails the wealthy Lady Leslane (Hertha von Walther), a secret opium addict, into wheedling information about the negotiations from her husband. Meanwhile Akira Masimoto (Lupu Pick), the Japanese head of security responsible for the treaty’s safekeeping, is onto Sonja and is keeping tabs on her while she is trying to woo 326 at the same time she is assigned to seduce a Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) into betraying his country for Haghi’s benefit. When Masimoto manages to outwit Haghi with the delivery of the signed treaty, Haghi sends out Kitty (Liene Dyers) to work her charms on Masimoto. And even when this is accomplished there is still an hour left to go in the film!
The behind the scenes stories of the production of this film are almost as tangled as its plot. Lang was reportedly having an affair with Gerda Maurus despite the small obstacle of Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou, who not only was the co-writer of the screenplay but Lang also stole her from her first husband, none other than Haghi himself, Rudolf Klein-Rogge!! Fritz Lang – Innovator, visionary, player! Amazingly this latter love triangle did nothing to stop the collaboration between all three on a number of Lang’s classics before and after. Much like Metropolis this film was one that had suffered the rigours of time and various edits over the years with the original negative long gone, but this release via the Masters Of Cinema/Eureka label, is the fully restored 144 minute version reconstructed from various sources including a high quality nitrate copy of the original film.
Spione is an intriguing work in that it is very much a product of its time whilst also being ahead of its time by some thirty years or so. The running time might put some people off but Lang manages to keep the pace pretty lively through out to the point you don’t notice how long it is. The acting is often typically hammy for the period although the one person who doesn’t go over the top is Klein-Rogge as Haghi. True to the spirit of the spy genre the story throws out plenty of misdirection to keep the viewer intrigued until the end with a somewhat definitive denouement to say the least.
An almost playful yet still inventive and engrossing outing from the Teutonic master.