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In the late 1920s, Fritz Lang was the star director of Germany's Ufa Studios, the biggest film studio outside of Hollywood, and one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the world for such ambitious epic visions as Destiny (1921), the Die Nibelungen (1924) films and especially Metropolis (1927), his allegorical science fiction classic that is still considered one of the great films of the silent era.
His 1928 thriller Spies (Spione) belongs to a different tradition, one that came out of the rapid-paced adventure and crime serials of the twenties that were inspired primarily by the hugely successful (and at times surreal) pulp crime serials of Louis Feuillade in France, such as Fantomas and Les Vampires. Early in his career, Lang (with Thea von Harbou) developed the exotic cliffhanger thriller The Indian Tomb (1921), which was directed by Joe May; Lang also wrote and directed Spiders (1919) and the popular two-part Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), both of which focused on a criminal empire headed by a mysterious, diabolical mastermind. After the grandiose sweep and imagery of Metropolis, Spies was a return to such pulp entertainment, but with the technical virtuosity and exacting perfectionism he had developed in the intervening years. It was also his first production as an independent producer through his short-lived company Fritz-Lang-Film GmbH. Metropolis was a critical success but a financial failure and it precipitated Lang' split with Ufa, though he didn't go far. Ufa continued to distribute and promote his independent productions.
The inspiration for Spies came from a real life event: Scotland Yard uncovered a Soviet espionage ring working in London under the cover of a trade delegation, a case that caused a scandal in 1926. Little of that true story remains in Lang's treatment as scripted by Thea von Harbou, his wife and creative partner, which springboards the concept into a pulp fantasy. In their tale, super spy and financial mastermind Haghi runs an international espionage network literally under the cover of a bank: his secret headquarters is located under the foundation of his public bank. Like Feuillade's Fantomas, Haghi is a master of disguise, and like Dr. Mabuse he controls a vast surveillance and communications network, which he uses to steal state secrets. The Mabuse connection is made even stronger with the casting of Rudolph Klein-Rogge as the master criminal; the actor who played both Mabuse and mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis. For Haghi's top operative, the beautiful super-spy Sonia, Lang cast Austrian stage star Gerda Maurus in her film debut. Another Lang favorite, Fritz Rasp, co-stars as another of Haghi's agents and director-actor Lupu Pick is rival agent Doctor Masimoto, seduced by cold-blooded femme fatale Kitty (Lien Deyers, also making her film debut). Willy Fritsch, a veteran leading man in his first role for Lang, completes the featured cast as the heroic Agent 326, the "good" spy who falls in love with Sonia on his mission to stop Haghi. There are buttonhole cameras, invisible ink messages, periscopes, peepholes, assassinations, seductions, drugged victims and a spectacular train wreck woven through the machinations of the competing spies.
Working on a much smaller budget and scale than his previous features, Lang creates a fluid, fast-paced, visually inventive film that weaves enough intrigue, double dealing, secret identities and criminal conspiracies for an entire serial into one compact movie. But he remained a perfectionist, at times shooting dozens of takes until he got the performance he demanded. According to journalist Curt Riess, he even used a real gun to shatter a glass plate which was placed next to his leading lady in one scene, personally firing real bullets from a variety of weapons until he got the desired effect. According to Riess, terrifying film rookie Gerda Maurus was all part of the effect: "Lang needed danger, so the actors could act out the danger of the situation." He completed Spies in 15 weeks, generous by most standards but quick for a painstaking perfectionist like Lang.
After Metropolis, Lang needed a success and Spies was just that, a popular hit in Germany that was exported to the U.S. in an edited version. Though it was derided by some critics for its convoluted plotting and pulp fantasy milieu, even the film's detractors admired the exacting editing, rapid pacing, expressionist images and fluid style of Lang's design and direction. In many ways it's his most exciting silent movie, and arguably his most purely entertaining. Like Metropolis, surviving prints of Spies were severely edited and the original cut was unavailable for decades until, in 2004, the Murnau Institute restored the film with over 50 minutes of missing footage. Lang's cinematic spy fantasy is available in its full glory once again.
Producer: Erich Pommer
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Fritz Lang (writer); Thea von Harbou (screenplay and novel)
Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Art Direction: Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht
Music: Werner R. Heymann
Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Haghi), Gerda Maurus (Sonya Baranilkowa), Lien Deyers (Kitty), Louis Ralph (Hans Morrier (Hans Morriera, English version)), Craighall Sherry (Burton Jason / Miles Jason), Willy Fritsch (No. 326 (Det. Donald Tremaine, English version)), Paul Hrbiger (Franz - The Chauffeur), Hertha von Walther (Lady Leslane), Lupu Pick (Doctor Masimoto (Matsumoto, English version)), Fritz Rasp (Colonel Jellusic (Ivan Stepanov, English version).
by Sean Axmaker