Just before tackling his sci-fi epic, Frau in Mond (1929) aka Woman in the Moon, which I wrote about recently, and effectively ending his early career for UFA in Germany with films like the masterpieces M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) before unceremoniously fleeing Nazi Germany, Lang made this lesser seen spy film, Spione (1928) aka Spies. An influence on everything from Hitchcock’s suspense classics to James Bond films, it’s a film that deserves to be celebrated far more than it has, though it’s now available on Blu-ray in the US thanks to the efforts of Kino, who have released this high definition restoration simultaneously with Woman in the Moon.
Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch) is ordered by the head of the Secret Service (Craighall Sherry) to take down the leader of an international spy organization, Haghi (Rudolph Klein-Rogge). Though he poses as a handicapped bank director, Haghi has a nefarious network of spies and assassins that have penetrated into the highest echelons of European society. One of his prized spies, Sonja (Gerda Maurus), a beautiful Russian, is told to seduce Agent 326. Much to her surprise, she falls in love with 326 and Haghi is forced to take her prisoner so that she doesn’t interrupt his ultimate scheme: stealing a Japanese treaty crucial to the country’s security.
Spies includes much of the creative group behind Woman in the Moon, namely its two stars — Lang’s lover Gerda Maurus and male lead Willy Frisch — and some overlapping supporting players such as the great Fritz Rasp, as well as screenwriter, Lang’s then wife, and his primary collaborator from this period, Thea von Harbou. But Spies is quite a departure from Woman in the Moon’s themes of longing, love, and exploration, and it bears more in common with his early crime films. There is the similar sense of a a fundamentally corrupt world — the same one seen in the Dr. Mabuse films and M — and all of these take place in a world ruled by violent cabals, thick with oppressive paranoia and a sense that doom that could befall any of the characters at any moment.
This is possibly the most expressionistic spy film ever made and it borrows from French serials like the wonderful Fantomas. One of the first true feature length espionage films, this has more tropes still in use today than you can possibly imagine: car chases, safe cracking, secret documents, shoot outs, a train crash, and a sexy Russian spy who finds redemption by falling in love with the hero. It’s probably the most suspenseful and fast-paced of Lang’s Weimar-era films and it’s hard to believe that this came just a year after Metropolis. It’s certainly a testament to Lang’s versatility, but is also quite a contrast to what would have been allowed in Hollywood. For example, there’s plenty of suicide (four of them, actually) and spies or corrupted diplomats dropping dead in every direction. There are also scenes of masked, black leather clad agents manhandling a suspect who has obviously been tortured — yet another example of Lang’s ability to foreshadow what was to come in just a few short years for Germany.
Spies also had an obvious influence on how Bond villains were portrayed cinematically (and perhaps fictionally). The film’s diabolical mastermind is in a wheelchair and has a sinister-looking goatee (while other dubious characters sport some outrageous eyebrows and mustaches). Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge of Metropolis and Dr. Mabuse der Spieler) primarily uses women in his schemes and he is a consummate fan of an espionage tactic known as the “honeypot” or “honeytrap,” where a beautiful woman is sent to seduce and blackmail a target. Sonja, the now stereotypical Russian spy, is initially one of these, though Haghi is just as comfortable manipulating potential female victims, like Lady Leslane (Hertha von Walther), the wife of a diplomat, who is blackmailed via her opium addiction. He is the epitome of a criminal mastermind and spouts such dialogue as “I’m richer than Ford and I pay considerably less in taxes.” I don’t want to completely spoil the film’s big reveal, another contemporary trope still in use, but Haghi cleverly manages to disguise himself as one of the Secret Service’s own top agents.
It’s a particularly beautiful film — though this could be said of any of Lang’s works — thanks to dynamic cinematography from one of the greatest of the period, Lang’s regular collaborator Fritz Arno Wagner (who also worked on films like Diary of a Lost Girl, Three Penny Opera, and Nosferatu). There are also gleeful moments of comedy — such as one scene where an agent goes undercover as a clown in the circus — and enough moments of melodrama that make it easy to forget that this is a silent film from the interwar era.
Lang is a director I’ve written a lot about in the last few years, because he’s one who continues to be thrilling and relevant despite the decades that have passed since his films were first released. Though the UK Masters of Cinema Blu-ray is a lot to compete with, Kino Lobber do an excellent job presenting this underrated effort. Though the massive booklet is missing, you’ll find the original theatrical trailer and Spies: A Small Film with Lots of Action, a more than 70 minute documentary on the making of the film. Needless to say, they will hopefully give the same treatment to his other neglected Weimar-era films.