Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fritz Lang | Spione (Spies)

the comedy is over by Douglas Messerli

Thea von Harbou (screenplay, based on her novel),  Fritz Lang (writer and director) Spione (Spies) / 1928, USA 1929

Watching Lang's fascinating spy film the other day, I was struck by just how many of the tropes and scenes he used in this film have appeared in nearly every spy story since. The glamorous women who work, willingly and unwillingly with the evil forces—in this case the Russian beauty Sonya Baranilowa (Gerda Marcus), the beautiful opium addict Lady Leslane (Hertha von Walther) and the murderous waif Kitty (Lien Devers)—might all be home in any James Bond adventure. The evil and always obedient nurse is spoofed in the Austin Powers series. The mad evil villain, in this case the gruff banker Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), appears in almost every spy tale I have seen from Hitchcock to, once more, the James Bond series. Even Lang's incidental scenes create traditions; isn't it required that in dark spy stories the hero must, at some point, take the slightly evil heroine-spy to a boxing match? But in Spione Lang takes it one step further by quickly converting the boxing ring into a dance floor, where the two quickly step off in a fox trot.

     How appropriate, moreover, that the villain should be a banker. Every "Occupy Wall Street" supporter ought to rent this movie immediately.

     What is truly stunning about Lang's film is its deep sense of paranoia. The dark, shadowy  rooms and streets of the great director's film are literally lined with spies, from the offices of the head of the Secret Service, Jason (Craighall Sherry) to the plush booths of restaurants, from the opium dens to public train stations. Nearly everywhere one might go in Lang's dizzying world, spies are at work. Late in the film, when our hero, No. 326 (Willy Fritsch)—with his number again reminding us of 007—sends a telegram, immediately behind him comes a man who has magically been able to copy the message by placing a mechanism beneath the writing table. Earlier a miniature camera is found on one of the assistants to the Secret Service head. Even though Doctor Masimoto (Lupu Pick) sends out three false copies of the signed Japanese Peace Treaty, the waif he has kindly taken in discovers the real document in his suitcase and steals it. In the world of Spies there is literally no safe haven, no shelter where one can hide from evil intrigues.

     What is equally disturbing is the number of deaths, most of them self-inflicted, that Haghi causes. Blackmailed into spying on her own husband, we can only imagine that Lady Leslane will seek out the opium den even more often in the future; discovered as a betrayer of his country, Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) shoots himself; Dr. Masimoto, upon realizing that Kitty has tricked him and stolen the Peace Treaty, ritually disembowels himself. Left in the unhooked last train car in a tunnel, Agent 326 seems destined for death. He survives to later round up Haghi's minions. And the former spy Sonya is redeemed through his salvation.

     Yet the mad banker Haghi is missing. In a switch that reveals the topsy-turvyiness of Lang's vision, 326 discovers that Haghi is also a Secret Service agent, 719, who hides his identity as the circus clown Nemo. Tracked down and faced by his pursuers, Haghi puts a gun to his head and releases the trigger. The comedy is over.

    But perhaps the drama had just begun. Marcus was having an affair with Lang during the filming, despite the fact that Lang's wife, the screenplay writer von Harbou and former wife of Klein-Rogge, was also working on the set.

Los Angeles, November 9, 2011

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