In just the first sixty seconds of Fritz Lang’s silent spy thriller Spione (Spies), the following occurs: a safe is ransacked of its contents, a high-ranking Minister is assassinated in a drive-by shooting, and all-out panic ensues as news of the aforementioned events spreads along telephone wires like wildfire. Who is responsible for these heinous crimes? “Ich,” declares criminal mastermind Haghi (Rudolf-Klein-Rogge, titular lead in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse diptych), revealed to us instantaneously and in full close-up – a devilish goatee accentuating his sinister air – revoking his anonymity for the sole benefit of the viewer. His foes in the Secret Service are, unlike us, none-the-wiser as to his identity; they flail around like headless chickens, in stark contrast to the composed, prepared Haghi, sitting calmly behind his densely populated albeit organised desk as if waiting for nothing less than another successive confirmation of a mission gone entirely to plan.
The modern spy thriller traditionally establishes its heroic protagonist first and foremost, before steadily unravelling a web of conspiracy whose buck stops at an omniscient villain – usually someone we hadn’t guessed. Here, the villain has been introduced from the off, so that the viewer is almost complicit in looking over his shoulder at the ensuing chaos. As the plot circles around a MacGuffin and a tangle of myriad international figures – from honourable Japanese minister Dr Masimoto (Lupu Pick) to the traitorous Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) – it becomes apparent that what Haghi actually wants besides domination is unclear and not necessarily important, thereby placing the focus squarely on the adventurous, romantic qualities of the narrative. Nevertheless, one could feasibly draw on theorist Sigfried Kracauer, supposing that the character of Haghi anticipates a duplicitous authoritarian leader in the vein of Hitler.
Haghi’s unwilling accomplice is Sonja Baranilkowa, whom he charges with the task of fending off his adversary – and her love interest – Agent 326 (Willy Frisch). The latter spy is a far cry from the suave, hardened action heroes of the modern era; he smothers his lady with puppy kisses and sobs over a stiff drink when he fears to have lost her forever. There’s a boyish vulnerability and cluelessness to this man (Sonja always knows more than 326 at any given moment) that seems to have been bled out of the modern action genre in favour of rough or ravishing male leads and meaningless female sidekicks to match. That’s certainly true of the James Bond series, for which Spione is otherwise a clear heavy influence, from the ballroom masquerade, to the spy identified by a three-digit number, to even Haghi himself, an obvious forerunner to Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Despite Sonja appearing as an ostensible ‘captive princess’ to Haghi, it’s curious to note that the upper hand in Spione is almost always secured by its women. Colonel Jellusic allows his libido to get the better of him, with fatal consequences; Agent 326 is gamed by Sonja until he rather desperately chases her down the street; even Mitsamuto, equally as prepared as the all-seeing Haghi, has his last-ditch plans outsmarted at the eleventh hour by a new lady-friend. As for Haghi, his formerly fool-proof machinations never appear on such shaky ground as when Sonja begins to assert her free will.
All this human manoeuvring builds a steady momentum that culminates in a train crash, a high-speed car chase, and a bank siege waged against both the clock and an onset of poisonous gas. The script by Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou, based on her original novel, feeds just enough dialogue and leaves the rest to these images of vehicular carnage and visually distinctive character designs. It’s a remarkable feat, considering the odds against a silent film in a genre since known for its convoluted plotting, but then for audiences in 1928 this would all have seemed as fresh as anything. At two-and-a-half hours, Lang’s penultimate silent feature is a brisk ride through the origin points of beloved spy thriller tropes.
Fritz Arno Wagner’s photography has been restored from a process begun in 2003 by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung working from various nitrate copies, the basis of which came courtesy of Národní Filmový Archive in Prague. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual-format set comes packaged with a 69-minute documentary on the film, and a 40-page booklet containing writing by Murielle Joudet and Jonatham Rosenbaum.