Starring: Willy Fritsch, Gerda Maurus, Rudolf Kleine-Rogge
Director: Fritz Lang
“A small film but with a lot of action,” is how Fritz Lang described Spione. Which is a bit misleading, since the film clocks in at a hefty two and a half hours – only about half the length of Die Nibelungen, admittedly, but still no one’s idea of a quick watch. But perhaps Lang meant small in terms of budget. Spione was certainly that – at 800,000 Reichsmarks, it cost about a fifth of his previous film, Metropolis. The spiralling budget of his sci-fi epic had left his relationship with his film studio, Ufa, at a low ebb, and Spione was Lang’s attempt to retrench his position by delivering a solid hit on a less lavish scale.
As for the action Lang mentioned, there’s no denying that the film starts off with a blast of energy. A gang of spies are murdering and thieving at will. Their leader, a Bond-like villain – years before Bond – called Haghi (Rudolf Kleine-Rogge), who is also a banker, and who dispatches masked and greatcoated henchmen to do his bidding from the comfort of a futuristic HQ. Determined to stop him is the secret service’s finest, No 326 (Willy Fritsch), who disguises himself as a filthy, stubbly street lout. Unfortunately, Haghi discovers No 326’s true identity and sends his best operative, Sonja (Gerda Maurus), to ensnare him. However, Sonja and No 326 end up falling in love with each other.
And this is where the film slows to an amble. Lang’s scenarist (and wife, although he was to leave her for Gerda Maurus) Thea von Harbou does little with the espionage milieu other than to use it as a backdrop for a conventional romantic melodrama, much as she was to do with the Jules Verne trappings of their next film, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon). Forgetting that he’s a master spy, No 326 acts like a giddy schoolboy. Sonja cools her heels in one of Haghi’s cells, kept from the man she loves by her jealous ogre of a boss. Hold on, weren’t there important state secrets at stake or something?
During this part of the movie, most of the enjoyment comes from a subplot to do with a kindly Japanese intelligence agent waylaid by one of Haghi’s sexpots (Lien Deyers), who’s soon flouncing around his apartment in an open kimono and not much else. It’s only really in the last forty minutes that the film really delivers on its initial promise. There’s a good sequence on a night train, culminating in a bravura crash in which we see sleeper compartments flattened one after the other by the business end of a colliding locomotive, with Sonja wriggling gamely though the smoking wreckage. And this is followed in turn by a motorbike and car chase shot with a bouncing, juddering camera that still has a Nouvelle Vague-like freshness. All of this is totally compelling – it’s just a shame that Lang takes his foot off the pedal for such a long time in the middle stretch.
Otherwise, the film is most notable for its austere, functionalist set design and for the cold, sharp style in which it is shot, foreshadowing the aesthetic of Lang’s Hollywood years. It’s a look that is well-served by this excellent 2K transfer, taken in the main from a nitrate print. Bar a little scratching and occasional rough patches, the picture has a crisp, crystaline quality that makes some of the scenes looks like they were shot yesterday. You can practically count the whiskers on No 326’s chin (before he shaves and falls in love), and the train sequence, with its high key lighting, looks spectacular.
There’s also an attractive bonus in the form of a 71-minute German-language documentary about the making of Spione. All of the German documentaries issued alongside Masters of Cinema’s silent movie catalogue have tended to be very thorough and informative, but this one is particularly enjoyable for the portrait it paints of what it was like to shoot at Ufa’s studio (apparently it was extremely noisy, with the crew yelling at each other all the time, even during takes). It also talks about the process of restoring Spione, which was complicated by the fact that the best negatives were supplied to Britain and the USA, who cut the film drastically to get to the nub of the story. Apparently, a negative was flown to New York by Zeppelin, although this publicity stunt did little for the movie’s prospects in a country on the verge of going crazy for the talkies.