Fritz Lang’s penultimate silent film, Spione (‘Spies’), builds on the powerful visual aesthetic of his previous film Metropolis and paves the way in terms of structuring, plotting and police procedural aspects for M and The Testament of Dr Mabuse. Unlike those films however, which had some degree of social commentary on the times, Spione is pure entertainment – a wonderful tale of espionage and counter-espionage between governments and international crime syndicates.
Spione opens up at a rattling pace, showing a number of high-profile assassinations and the theft of important documents that leave the Secret Service open to public ridicule and seriously compromised from within by moles and spies. The Minister of Interior demands that the criminal activities be quashed and Agent No. 326 (Willy Fritsch) aims to uncover what so many other agents have died trying to find out – who is the mastermind behind this vast international spy-ring? The man behind it all is Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, as if you couldn’t guess – Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), the owner of a large bank from where, in his wheelchair, he conducts his nefarious worldwide network of crime. Fully aware of all that is going on within the Secret Service thanks to his moles and informers, Haghi sends out one of his best female agents, the beautiful Russian spy, Sonja (Gerda Maurus). However complications ensue when Sonja and No. 326 fall in love with each other.
Like the Bond films that they predate, Spione is pure sensationalist entertainment, setting up larger than life situations between anonymously interchangeable villains and governments and playing them out just for the sheer fun of it. Add into the mix a few complicated sub-plots, conspiracies and double agents, with fetishistic detail on all their little technological gadgets and accoutrements (exploding coconuts?), along with the employment of sexy female foreign agents who are sent out to entrap the Secret Service’s top spy, but end up falling for his charms. Just to complete the picture, we have a criminal mastermind who has his prisoners tied-up to die an almost inevitable death at the end of a countdown and I think you know where this one is going. What is the purpose of all Haghi’s gathering of intelligence and information? Money? World domination? It’s not clear, but in Spione it doesn’t appear to be either of these conventional objectives. Perhaps it’s just for the megalomaniacal power to influence and direct the course of worldwide events. Well, Rudolf Klein-Rogge is the man you could believe would do that.
Despite the rather simplistic and apparently purposeless premise of Spione, what the film really has going for it is Fritz Lang’s magnificent visual storytelling techniques, which work with a minimal need for intertitles, as well as his innovative and dynamic style. Some of the set pieces are fabulous, particularly in the opening sequences and in a thrillingly paced finale, where Lang makes use of a repetition of the onomatopoeic train number 33.133, upon which No.326 is destined to die, imposing it visually on images of the moving train and a ticking clock. The resulting train crash is achieved with effective simplicity through strong editing and judicious use of lights and smoke effects. The pacing, despite the fact that the film still runs to two and a half hours, is much improved from the excesses and longeurs of Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler - and is much more clearly structured and purposeful. Performances are also much more naturalistic than most early silent films, or certainly no more melodramatic than the material calls for. Gerda Maurus as Sonja is particularly enjoyable to watch, going into passionate raptures over the picture she holds of her love, No. 326, yet as one of Haghi’s best agents, she fights tooth and nail with spirited ferocity against her attackers and captors.
Spione has been recently restored, during 2003 and 2004, by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, with additional restoration and digital mastering to the usual high standards by IML. No original negatives exist for Spione, but the majority of the film used for this restored transfer comes from a very high quality nitrate copy, held at the Národni Filmovy Archiv at Prague, with additional elements from other film archives around the world. Cut back to 90 minutes for its original US release, the film is now presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio at the full 145 minutes length, which is even more complete than the 170 minute listing on IMDB, which runs incorrectly at 16fps to obtain that longer timing. The Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD release of Spione (#9), is encoded for Region 2.
Considering that no original negative exists for Spione, the picture quality is astoundingly good – but it varies from scene to scene depending on the quality of the source material. The vast majority of the film is remarkably clear, sharp and detailed with excellent black and white tones. Much of the print is also free from any serious damage or visible grain and impeccably restored, although certain scenes do certainly show signs of the restoration and some still show more damage and grain than others. There is little problem with the DVD transfer. Some stepping can be seen in diagonal lines if examined closely, but this is rare and a minor detail in an otherwise fine transfer. Despite some evident marks and occasional long scratch lines in a few scenes, the majority of the film is certainly worth an 8 marking, as I hope the screen captures here can testify.
The silent film comes with a brand-new music score by Donald Sosin and it is excellent and unobtrusive, not imposing a mood or themes onto the film, it just matches the tempo and emotional content of each scene. You don’t really want a modern score to do anything more than that – there is nothing a music score can or should add to what Lang has already depicted so brilliantly on the screen. The score is predominately piano-led, but makes sparing use of strings, woodwind and percussion to underscore dramatic sequences, and some deliberately dated sounding electronic effects to match the old-fashioned ideas of hi-tech gadgetry.
The German intertitles for the film were re-created and styled on the original font. The DVD gives the viewer the option of watching the film with or without English subtitles. Apart from the opening credits, the English subtitles are superimposed onto the muted German intertitles. They fully translate even the longer cards and are always perfectly clear and readable.
Extra features are minimal on this Eureka/Masters of Cinema release, but worthwhile. A Gallery contains Promotional Materials - 12 striking posters and lobby cards and 44 Production Stills, including stills of Lang working behind the scenes with the actors. A 20-page booklet contains an extensive essay about the film by Jonathan Rosenbaum. For anyone looking more information, there is more than enough supporting material for this period of Lang’s work and the restoration work that has been done on these films on the other Lang titles already released as part of the Masters of Cinema series.
Taken alongside the better known early Fritz Lang films - Metropolis, M, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler or The Testament of Dr Mabuse, Spione might not be the director’s best or most innovative film, but as an entertaining espionage adventure full of glamour, romance and intrigue with a strong visual impact and spirited performances, it is probably a more accessible way into Fritz Lang’s early work and silent cinema in general. The DVD presentation – as with all Eureka/Masters of Cinema releases – is fabulous. The DVD is short on the usual extensive extra features this time, but there is no lessening in quality and the film certainly stands-up well on its own to make Fritz Lang’s Spione a very worthwhile addition to the collection.