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SPIES, 1928
Classic Movie Review

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SPIES, 1928
Classic Movie Review
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gerda Maurus
Review by Ben Stewart



SYNOPSIS:

Agent No 326 is ordered to stop a spy-ring, but he falls in love with one of the spies, Sonja. No 326 tries to find the head of that organisation. He doesn't know that this is banker Haghi, with whom Sonja bets, that No 326 will identify him, because she has fallen in love, too. So haghi tries everything to confuse the secret service and to neutralize No 326

REVIEW:

The Bureaucracy has begun to crumble. The government has been thrust into a state of mass panic by an unseen force. There has been a murder, and official documents have been stolen, but to what cause? Reams of paper are stacked floor to ceiling by an unseen worker, until they eventually topple. Inept, buffoonish officials scream into telephones, asking questions to which no one has answers. A figure rushes inside, insisting that he knows who is behind the murder! But before the words can escape his lips, a bullet careens through the window, killing him. A witness to these events, in a state of shock, raises his trembling hands upward and utters, “Almighty God, what power is at play here?”

As we fade in from black, the man behind the curtain is revealed. Lang mainstay Rudolph Klein-Rogge appears, looking through the camera to the audience. With an assured calmness, he answers with a singular “I.” So ends one of the most exciting and brilliantly constructed sequences in Lang’s long career, and so begins Fritz Lang’s Spies.

It was 1928, and Metropolis had just been released to critical acclaim in both Germany and abroad. However, the company that financed the film, UFA, was nearly driven to bankruptcy due to the film’s expansive sets and cast of thousands. Although Lang

still had significant clout within the German film industry, he opted to work on a much smaller (and likely more profitable) scale for his next film. For his follow-up, Lang chose to make Spies, again working from a screenplay by his wife Thea Von Harbou. Possibly attempting to alleviate any profitability concerns UFA held regarding Metropolis, Spies marked a return to the crime genre that he had found success with in his 1922 film, Dr. Mabuse The Gambler.

Spies again stars Rudolf Klein-Rogge (who played Dr. Mabuse and the scientist Rotwang in Metropolis) as Haghi, a wheelchair-bound criminal mastermind who uses his bank as a front for his criminal activity. Willy Fritsch, working with Lang for the first time, stars as Agent No. 326, an undercover spy who’s put onto Haghi’s trail by the government. Things do not go according to plan as No. 326 is thrown off of Haghi’s trail by Sonya Barranikowa, a Russian fellow spy who unwittingly fell under Haghi’s control. Sonya is played by the beautiful Gerda Maurus, another new face in the Lang repertoire. Although initially playing the role of the ‘damsel in distress’ in order to deter No. 326 from his goals, Sonya’s feelings of malevolence eventually turn to true feelings of love and compassion for No. 326, and they together work to bring down Haghi’s criminal empire.

The similarities between Spies and Lang’s previous crime epic, Dr. Mabuse The Gambler, are unmistakable. Both films feature Klein-Rogge as a sort of omnipresent, yet hidden, enforcer. In addition, both films feature the ‘cops vs. crooks’ genre elements that also came to feature so prominently in Lang’s later film noir work. Going beyond these surface elements, however, Spies reveals itself at its own movie.

Unlike his previous films, Spies largely abandons the expensive, expressionistic sets that populated Lang’s previous work and would, for lack of a better term, take place in the “real” world. No longer taking place in a city of the future or an elaborate, decadent version of Berlin, Spies took place in a world that was immediately recognizable to a mass audience. This change in style makes Spies a transitional film for Lang. Despite the films’ pulp sensibility, it signaled the beginning of a change in Lang’s style - one that focused more on the real world and real characters over the fantastical elements that were so prevalent in most of his early work.

However, this transition to a more scaled down environment proved somewhat difficult for Lang, and compared to his other films, particularly Dr. Mabuse The Gambler, Spies simply doesn’t hold up. Whereas Lang’s well-known Mabuse character comes and goes as he pleases, coaxing the audience along on his exploits, Haghi, on the other hand, is confined to a wheelchair for most of Spies’ runtime. Although an interesting concept on paper, on film Haghi becomes a stagnant villain, whose lack of mobility remains an unfortunate decision on Lang’s part. Willy Fritsch, who plays No. 326 in Spies, is simply given nothing to work with in this film, and is ultimately the most undeveloped and least interesting character. Events simply happen around him, regardless of his participation in them. However, the character of Sonya, much like the female characters in both Dr. Mabuse The Gambler and Metropolis, is given the most development. Women always feature strongly in Lang’s early work, and Spies is no exception as Gerda Maurus is wonderful as the morally conflicted woman.

Spies is perhaps Lang’s most commercial film. Largely casting aside the social commentary prevalent in Dr. Mabuse The Gambler, Metropolis, and much of his other early work, Spies exists only to entertain. After the message-heavy Metropolis, Spies must have seemed like something of a throwaway film to Lang, something to do in between more serious projects. In fact, there’s a feeling of lightheartedness and humor that permeates throughout the entire film, an element that’s all too rare in Lang’s work. Characters laugh and make jokes, fall in love at the drop of a hat, and take place in a car chase when the time is right. All the genre elements that would later come to populate the crime/spy genre, and most directly the James Bond series are here, for better or worse.

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After the exhaustive nature of Metropolis, it’s easy to see why Lang took on this project. For those attempting to explore Lang’s work, it’s an easy place to start, but it’s missing the social commentary usually representative of his body of work. Much as it must have seemed to Lang when he made the film, Spies remains fun, but ultimately disposable.

That’s it for this week, folks! Up next – Woman In The Moon!

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