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In the space of the first one minute and 37 seconds, a safe is burgled, a
diplomat is killed, two secret documents are stolen, and an intertitle
demands "WHO IS BEHIND THIS?" We're off in the world of Fritz Lang's
This film has everything that would later become spy film cliches: the ultra cool, ultra suave secret agent; the evil powerful genius, confined to a wheelchair, who dreams of world domination; his beautiful seductress, who falls for the secret agent. There are hidden microphones and disappearing ink and secret packages and bulletproof wallets. There's a motorcycle/car chase, and an in-tunnel train wreck to round out the action.
Okay, the movie doesn't feature the secret agent with the famous number
But after I've seen this really entertaining movie , I wondered if Ian
Fleming saw this movie before he created his legendary
hero. It contains everything we already know from the James Bond movies:
- A strong and handsome hero with a secret identity number (this time 326) - A sinister and evil villain in a wheelchair (without a white cat, but with a striking resemblance to Lenin) - A secret headquarter for the villains - An attractive heroine, who falls immediately in love with the hero - exiting action-sequences and chases (featuring a crashing train and motorcycles) etc., etc. . Willy Fritsch is very good in the role of the hero (even though you wouldn't associate him with this genre when you saw his comedies) and Rudolf Klein Rogge (the mad scientist from Metropolis) is perfectly evil. The movie is fast-paced and very entertaining, despite its length of nearly three hours. Lang shows that he is correctly regarded as one of the best german directors of all time and that he is capable of succeeding in every genre, be it science-fiction, crime or even spy-adventures.
Fritz Lang, undeniably one of the greatest and most influential
film-makers in all of cinema, is one of my favorites and, from his
early work which remains, perhaps, his most important I only had a
few of his surviving films still to catch up with. SPIONE was one of
them and, now that I've watched it, I can confirm its stature as one of
his very best, if relatively little-known.
The film is basically a follow-up to Lang's seminal two-part DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER (1922) and, indeed, it's Rudolph Klein-Rogge himself who originated the role of Mabuse who plays the evil crimelord here (called Haghi and who is made-up to resemble Lenin!). SPIONE follows much the same pattern of intrigue, thrills and action; however, the film's narrative structure is not straightforward but rather elliptical and, even though ostensibly dealing with the conflict which may arise were a treaty to fall into the wrong hands, several major plot points are left deliberately obscure (in fact, we never get to know what the treaty actually contains a precursor to Hitchcock's beloved "McGuffin", perhaps or what Haghi's intentions are, once he gets his hands on it!). In this respect, the social conscience so pronounced in the Mabuse diptych coming, as it did, on the heels of Germany's defeat in WWI is largely jettisoned here in favor of romance (between a female spy desired, and being blackmailed, by Haghi and the Secret Service agent who is the mastermind's nemesis), eroticism (the ensnaring of a central political figure by a vamp in Haghi's service) and technical dexterity (ensuring that SPIONE's considerable 2½-hour running-time goes by rapidly and without any longueurs, in my estimation at least, as opposed to the sluggish and rather static Mabuse). It is not inconceivable, therefore, to discern in Lang's fanciful melodrama the germ for all the spy thrillers which followed from Hitchcock to the James Bond extravaganzas and beyond.
As befits a master story-teller like Lang, particularly during this most creative phase of his career, SPIONE is virtually a catalogue of memorable scenes (interestingly enough, the supplementary photo gallery includes shots from sequences that are missing in the main feature!) chief among them a ghostly visitation, a ritual suicide, a train-wreck, a police raid on a bank and a stage performance by a clown; however as opposed to the DVD back-cover, which blatantly spells out its most clever twist in emulation of the film itself, I've refrained from giving too much away about them here
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.
What a hoot! As the other comments have pointed out, this movie has everything and then some. The Image DVD furthers this excitement with the use of an Expressionist typeface for the intertitles and punctuation that includes "-!?", "!!", and even at one point, "-!!!" "Spies" offers an almost perfect print with superb music and sound effects. Newbies to silent film will have to adjust to the wild and sometimes bizarre pantomime style of the acting, but give it half a chance and "Spies" will have you on the edge of your seat, even at the 140- minute length. I love Fritz Lang's American films, like "Rancho Notorious" and "Clash by Night"don't miss these if you have the chancebut Lang's German work shows a young director always at the top of his form, full of brilliant ideas and bursting with energy.
The powerful criminal and leader of a spy ring Haghi (Rudolf Klein-
Rogge) uses his spies that are infiltrated everywhere including in the
secret service in attempts to steal documents from the French Embassy
in Shanghai and from the Minister of Trade that is murdered. The press
questions and mocks the officials in charge of security of state and
the efficient Agent No. 326 a.k.a. the vagrant Hans Pockzerwinski
(Willy Fritsch) is summoned by the Secret Service Chief (Craighall
Sherry) to investigate the wave of crimes. Agent 326 immediately
identifies that his chief's assistant Vincent is a spy that is
providing inside information to the evil mastermind that no one knows
how looks like. Meanwhile, Haghi saves the scoundrel Hans Morrier
(Louis Ralph) from the gallows to serve him. Then Haghi, who is also
the general director of the Haghi Bank, blackmails Mrs. Leslane (Hertha
von Walther), who is the wife of the powerful Roger Lesland and habitué
of an opium den, to get information of the Japanese Secret Treaty. When
Haghi assigns his master spy Sonya Baranilkowa (Gerda Maurus) to get
closer to the elegant Agent No. 326, they unexpectedly fall in love for
each other affecting Haghi's evil scheme. Meanwhile his spy Kitty (Lien
Deyers) lures and seduces the reserved and efficient Japanese agent
Akira Matsumoto (Lupu Pick) to steal his documents about the recently
signed Treaty that may bring war to the world.
"Spies" is a fantastic epic of espionage, romance, seduction and betrayal by Fritz Lang and I dare to say that James Bond stories might have been inspired in this film. I saw "Spies" yesterday in a restored authorized edition of the DVD released by Kino Video, and in the Extras there is the amazing story of the restoration of this film. The 35 mm archives in nitrate throughout the world were very damaged and incomplete, but this complex version was assembled from several copies using the guidance of the copy from Prague that was the most complete and also deteriorated. The result is a film of 143 minutes running time meaning 50 minutes longer than any version previously released. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "Os Espiões" ("The Spies")
I saw the restored version which is an hour longer than the print commonly
available. Lang did some amazing things with text and graphics. His great
reputation for innovation is well deserved.
This film is also very funny at times... as a result of intentional exaggeration for the most part. The level of expressionist abstraction allows one to view the mechanisms of the plot at some distance... the better to enjoy the formal qualities of Lang's vision.
"Spies" is much more entertaining than you would expect an old German
silent movie to be, and at first, it's hard to say why. The character
types are familiar from hundreds of other spy movies: a villain who is
bent on world domination and has multiple secret identities, a
beautiful blonde who works as a spy for the villain, a dashing enemy
agent who falls in love with the female spy. The plot is fairly
ludicrous, though it moves along briskly and provides for some great
set-pieces, such as an exhilarating chase scene. But despite all the
clichés found in "Spies," the movie still feels fresh and vital. You
get drawn into the world of the film and accept the clichés, rather
than becoming distracted by them.
I'm sure most of the credit for this has to go to the director, Fritz Lang. His films ("Metropolis," "M") often have a very dark world view, but the overall tone of "Spies" is escapist adventure-fantasy. It aims to provoke thrills, not shock or outrage. Lang creates some stunning visual compositions and proves to be a very detail-oriented directorhe delights in close-ups of spy gadgetry! His innovative use of montages, dramatic lighting, camera movement, and other techniques gives the film an interesting stylization.
I'm writing this review after watching the 90-minute American version of "Spies". But I had such a good time that I may have to seek out the 146-minute version!
Fritz Lang was one of the great silent film directors (His talkies are great as well) and this is his best silent film. Agents target the mysterious Haghi (Rudolf Klien-Rogge), a master criminal out to topple the banks of the world. The pursuit includes a seductive young female spy driving a Japanese business man to hari-kiri, assassinations, a chase and a showdown on a train (that collides in one heck of a sequence.) The film concludes with Haghi trapped on a stage where he is dressed as a clown (Why a powerful bank president moonlights as a third rate clown has always puzzled me.) Alfred Hitchcock openly cites this brillaint film as an influence. Also, there is a priceless glimpse of 1920's Germany here- the decadence of Berlin, where apartment dwellers turn their tiny flats into bars for extra cash. Even when the film plays in its complete 3 hour form, it's an exciting time at the movies.
Freqently throughout its 146 minutes, I found myself thinking: now
where have I seen that before? Because, clearly, Alfred Hitchcock
studied this 'zinger' carefully before making "The 39 Steps": not only
that, but I suspect he also incorporated elements of it in at least
half a dozen other of his British films.
146 minutes, I said, but, while some of the early scenes in the first hour or so are somewhat repetitive, and studio-bound, once Lang cranks up the suspense,....and this is where the influences for Hitchcock were plain to see,.....you really had to hang on to your seat.
The plot, despite its labyrinthine twists and turns, is 'yer common-or-garden Dr Mabuse, mad evil genius type' set for World domination. Of course it does have an endearing,....(yes '39 Steps'again),.... romantic sideline, which doesn't at all detract from the pacing or suspense.
But this isn't "The Magic Mountain"..nor even 'M' with its deeper psychological overtones..you're not meant to delve deeply into it: its pure hokum, meant for enjoyment
There are some dazzling scenes: the dance/boxing-ring; the climactic 'race against time' scenes in the bank; .....ahem,.........the 'literally', breakneck-paced train scenes; that truly surreal, but riveting, ending.
And, of course,Rudolf Klein Rogge, as ever, enjoys himself as the Mabuse-like,Haghi.
The film features some wonderfully Expressionistic lighting by Fritz Arno Wagner; much-to-admire 'Art-Deco' like sets; my stunning 'Masters Of Cinema' DVD features a glorious score,....and I'm sure I detected Rachmaninov clips in among its most romantic moments.
But, above all,it was a most assured job of direction by Lang.
And I can't wait to watch it again!
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