Spies are cool. Spy films are really cool. Spione, Fritz Lang’s epic high-octane espionage thriller from 1928, is exceedingly cool. This a sexy, dreamlike movie, heavy on the action and light on logic, which both anticipates and outpaces such noir favourites as The Big Sleep (1946). In fact, if you watch all two-and-a-half hours of this film without getting regular memory jolts of Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock and the whole pantheon of Lang’s future colleagues, I’d be hugely surprised.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is German Lang, not Hollywood Lang – and Spione is all the richer, and stranger, for it. Spione mashes up pulp fiction and lurid newspaper headlines with early film serials and adds in a twist of the fantastic and a dash of technolust. It’s a powerful brew.
“Throughout the world, strange events transpire …” runs the opening intertitle and that’s all the backstory you’ll get, folks. In a nameless country, a mysterious kingpin dispatches mercenaries and thugs to steal documents and sabotage treaty negotiations. The disruptive villain, Haghi, is played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, fresh from a similar role in Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), as a dangerously fascinating, if chilly, creature. It’s typical of this grand, sprawling movie that he’s not just a criminal mastermind but a banker too (boo-hiss) and a clown (say what?). Just go with it. And there’s no doubt whose side we want to be on, though, despite the best counter-espionage efforts of our upright-but-anonymous leading man Willy Fritsch, who goes by the digits No 326. The link between the two men is Sonja, a lethally blonde femme fatale, an employee of Haghi’s who falls for Mr 326: a seductive, dishevelled performance by Gerda Maurus.
There’s not an ounce of fat on this film – if it’s not sexy, dangerous or illegal, Lang won’t allow it on screen. And this makes for breathless, disorienting viewing. Lang fragments his story into a collage of key details: a cigarette smouldering, a diamond bracelet, a revolver, also smouldering. And as this fragments combine and build towards a grand finale, the design of the film becomes ever more elaborate. Lang cross-cuts for dynamism, but the look of the film reflects his grand plan too. No expressionist gloom here, but a a series of breathtakingly intricate compositions of architecture and shadow, and the occasional playful painted-on effect. Lang has as much control here as Haghi does over his criminal schemes, and as with Haghi’s machinations too, the thrill for the viewer is in his mad method, rather than the stated objective.
While Haghi runs rings around the country with coconut bombs and poison gas, Lang glamours the audience with stunts and cinematographic beauty: here’s the geometry of Die Nibelungen, the tempo of Metropolis and the hypnotic thrills of Dr Mabuse, corralled into one movie. It’s a dark movie, too, with opium, alcohol and suicide in the mix. And Thea Von Harbou (who scripted the film, and wrote the novel it was based on) has a terrifying way of showing us how a nation can fall in thrall to a dangerous madman.
If you can hack the pace, it’s an extraordinary experience – if not, the relentless showboating may wear you down. But either way, this dual-format rerelease from Masters of Cinema is most welcome. Spione wears this high-def transfer well – it’s dressed to kill, and this is a movie that cannot be confined to a small screen.
Beyond the transfer, Masters of Cinema has been good to us with this disc. There are two scores: an enjoyably impossible choice between tracks from Donald Sosin and Neil Brand, both of whom demonstrate that they are genuinely excited by this movie. And there is an advance on the extras found on the previous DVD release: a 69-minute German-language documentary (taking its name from Lang’s own assessment of the movie: A Small Film But With a Lot of Action), and a booklet containing meaty essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum (particularly sharp, of course) and Murielle Joudet.
Spione (1928) is released by Masters of Cinema on dual-format DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 24 November 2014. Find out more here.