Haghi is a criminal mastermind whose ubiquitous spy operation is always several steps ahead of the police and the government's secret service. Enter Agent 326, the daring and dashing young man, who thinks his disguise as a dirty, bearded vagrant is fooling the unknown mastermind and his minions. But Haghi is well aware of 326's existence and what he looks like. Enter Sonya, a Russian lady in Haghi's employ. Haghi wants Sonya to subvert the efforts of the government agent, but doesn't count on her falling in love with him. Meanwhile, Haghi is anxious to get his hands on a Japanese peace treaty in the possession of the cunning Doctor Masimoto, whose mistress is also in his employ. Written by
"Whose blood shall I wear around my neck tonight?"
One of things that I think attracts young film fans to German cinema from the Weimar period is that it displays a striking stylistic extremism that captivates modern viewers not yet used to silent cinema. This ranges from Murnau's technical effects extravaganzas, to Lubitsch's off-the-wall comedy creations and, of course, Fritz Lang's angular architecture and comic-book sense of adventure.
A mistaken impression with these pictures is that they got to be so stylised because of a higher degree of artistic freedom in the European studios. However UFA studios were just as much about collaboration and commercialism as those in Hollywood. While individual directors did have a lot of control over the look of their pictures, these overt styles owe more to the influence of German theatre, as well as German literature, painting and the opera.
As with any cinema, anywhere, one of the most important collaborators is the screenwriter. No matter how strong or attention-grabbing your visual style is, if you haven't got the story, you haven't got anything. Spione features one of the best efforts from Lang's collaborator and wife Thea von Harbou, and is in many ways a tightened-up reworking of Dr Mabuse. Whereas that earlier picture was full of unnecessarily long title cards, Spione is far more succinct, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps. Importantly it begins with a lengthy piece of pure silent storytelling, which helps to engage us before bombarding us with verbal information. Harbou's characters are also very strong. It's a nice touch to make arch-villain Haghi wheelchair bound a man who is weak in body but strong in means and influence.
Lang himself was by now a master of his own highly individual technique. Space and set décor should be important to every director, but Lang is probably the only one who tells his stories more through architecture than through actors. With rooms so bizarre and angular they would probably drive most people mad if they had to live or work in them, Lang sets a tone for each location, and thus for each scene. Narrow corridors give a sense of entrapment; open doorways leading onto larger spaces give a sense of uneasiness; crisscrossing diagonals carve up the screen, often drawing our attention to things and people. One thing that especially stands out in Spione is that way Lang often creates compositions that are almost-but-not-quite symmetrical. Just as a great colour director like Vincente Minnelli might throw in a splash of blue to offset (and thus bring to life) a shot full of shades of red, Lang adds for example the nurse standing to one side of an otherwise symmetrical shot of Haghi sat at his desk.
Even Lang's choice of camera position was strictly angular. He is either to one side, detached from the action, or he is right inside it with actors staring straight into the lens. He rarely uses, say, opposing over-the-shoulder shots that many directors would for intimate dialogue scenes, but his methods were nonetheless effective. Spione in fact features one of his most beautifully constructed romantic scenes in the first meeting between Willy Fritsch and Gerda Maurus. Lang begins with the camera to one side, simply filming the meeting as a casual observer. He then begins placing the camera between them, interspersed with close-ups of hands or other objects, making us experience the growing emotional intensity as well as that slight feeling of awkwardness. We then return to a shot to the side of the actors, but closer this time, as they move in for their first kiss. In spite of his reputation Lang could be incredibly tender and sentimental at times.
Exaggerated acting tends to be part and parcel of that over-the-top nature of German silent cinema, and in the case of Lang's features it is often particularly apt given the comic-book style characters and situations. Spione is no exception, but it is nice to see the normally animated Rudolf Klein-Rogge getting to underplay it a little as a cool and collected villain. Lupu Pick also gives a very deep and emotionally complex performance as the Japanese ambassador.
The upshot of this collaboration is an incredibly exciting and satisfying picture, even though it is rarely referenced as one of Fritz Lang's best. If it is remembered at all it is usually for its resemblance to later gadget-based espionage thrillers, as well as containing many of the suspense building techniques later employed by Hitchcock, such as letting the audience in on things the characters do not know. It is, nevertheless, among the most carefully constructed, exciting and purely enjoyable of Lang's silent pictures, and an improvement on the better-known Dr Mabuse.
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