18 July 2009

Spione (1928)

d. Fritz Lang / Germany / 178 mins.

The silent films of Fritz Lang can be divided rather clearly into two distinct categories — the espionage thriller and the dark fantasy. Lang is more famous for his fantasies certainly, films that explore the machinery of fate like Der Müde Tod ("Destiny"), Die Nibelungen and Metropolis. But just as he would leave the mark of his wicked sensibilities on the American noir in the 1940s and 1950s, there is no denying the importance and influence he left on the spy genre in the silent 1920s in films like Der Spinnen ("The Spiders"), Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, and Spione.

Spione (translated: "Spies") is often held up as the greatest of Lang's early espionage thrillers, both for its own dynamics as a film and its influence on others. At times it can be a roar, such as the montage-heavy opening sequence where Lang cuts across to capture all the events in a heist of secret international documents, or in the well-done chase sequences, particularly the smashing finale. But as much as Spione can be a roar, it occasionally suffers from being a bit of a confounding bore. As Lang directed it, and as it was originally shown, the film is near three hours in length at 16 frames per second, and it operates off of a complex and convoluted script that makes first-pass accessibility rather difficult. In many ways Spione is an attempt to perfect the formula he began with Spinnen and Mabuse — start off excitingly, dip down into a steady plot with moments of energy, and zap the audience with a high-impact ending — but its downs are a little too sluggish and its energy is never quite as heart-pounding as it could be.

Although it takes a while to establish what exactly is going on, the story, written by Lang and Thea von Harbou, reveals itself to be deceptively simplistic. Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch) is in pursuit of a Russian super-villain named Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, done up to appear as much like Vladimir Lenin as possible) whose organization aims for world domination. Haghi dispatches his own secret agent, Sonya (Gerda Maurus), to throw off Agent 326, but the two fall in love and so the stitching has begun for complicated quilt of intrigue and threat. One of the film's strengths in this and a parallel subplot where it avoids the superficialities of love and lust and imbues a real sense of consequence for the characters as their relationships move forward. Although the characters themselves are drastically underwritten, particularly Haghi, who lacks the complexities of a villain like Mabuse, it is not difficult to see where a film like Spione fits into the Lang canon. He clearly wants to establish a balance between the pulpy occupational endeavors of a spy's life with the more artistic explorations of moral substance of a spy's personal life, but such a balance never seems reached and as one half relies on the other for support the whole film ends up on an uneven keel.

Today Spione lacks the inherent mystery of the espionage world because it led the way in establishing set-pieces that would become cliches in the genre. Its bearded villain, debonair agent, disappearing ink and bullet-proof devices and hidden microphones have all reappeared in spy film after spy film. Spione and Dr. Mabuse, were clearly influential pieces on Alfred Hitchcock, who in the following decade produced numerous spy thrillers in England, the pinnacle of which is undoubtedly The 39 Steps. That film and others like Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Secret Agent (1936) and Sabotage (1936) owe a lot to Spione, with their blends of romance and action. But Hitchcock at his best, as in The 39 Steps, could deduce the essential elements for the spy thriller and managed to boil them down and streamline the entire process into a film that is tighter and more pleasing. Lang's cut of Spione is almost twice as long as The 39 Steps but only half as thrilling; that's a deadly calculus, even for those who revere Lang.

Like many of Lang's films, this has been given a rather beautiful restoration (by the F.W. Murnau Foundation) and looks clean, crisp, and practically new. But just to make things difficult, there is a 90-minute version available (released theatrically in the United States in the late 1920s) that reportedly utilizes some trimming and tinkering and solves some of the pacing problems. For authenticity's sake, without a stamp of approval from a director, I wouldn't suggest viewing a film in any other form except as close to the original as possible. It's possible that the shorter, leaner version capitalizes on the higher points in the script to make a film that might be, for all I know, more functional in the midsections. But it isn't Spione as Lang intended. Although this version is not without its flaws, there's no better time than now to watch the film as it was intended. If nothing else it'll make you appreciate what Lang did the genre and how others, most notably Hitchcock, turned that into gold.


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