August 9, 2018
Spies – Germany, 1928
Fritz Lang’s Spies begins with an ominous message: “Strange things were taking place throughout the world.” What we see next shows that this is not an understatement. In a series of vignettes, we see theft, a political assassination, and chaos in a bank. A character screams aloud the question that is on many people’s minds: Just who did these things? The camera then shifts to a bald man with a goatee sitting behind a control panel, a puppeteer seemingly pulling the strings of anarchy. Suddenly, the ominous words, “I did” appear on the scream. Well, so much for that mystery, and before you have much time to wonder who exactly he’s talking to, the film shifts focus, fading in on a rather unkempt gentleman, a character that we suspect is either helping sow the seeds of chaos or on assignment to end it.
So, that’s the set-up. A world in disarray, manipulated by a powerful villain with henchman a plenty, and a single person who must stop him before it is too late. If this reminds you of early James Bond films involving Spectre, it’s not hard to see why. However, Spies came first, and so comparing it to a film like Dr. No, while certainly tempting, is unfair. It should be assessed on its own merit, and looked at without the benefit of foresight, the film is both a wonder and a disappointment.
First, Lang has created an impressive and ingenious world, one filled with hidden rooms, underground lairs, spies who spy on other spies, and the constant threat of blackmail. He puts him villain in the middle of shots and then shows his dirty work being done with hands that reach to both sides with relative ease. In the scene, he resembles a multitasking octopus, a monster capable of orchestrating multiple crimes at once. He also has a great cover. In one scene, we see him leave the room through a sliding door and resume his duties as the head of a large bank that bears his moniker, Haghi. In addition, he’s in a wheelchair, a quality that both adds to his legend.
Lang also establishes early on the impressive skills of his leading man, Agent 326 (Willy Fitsch). In an early scene, the character spots a spy in the intelligence agency and quickly subdues him. Therefore, we understandably expect this character to doggedly pursue his man, stopping at nothing to prevent whatever other act of espionage is currently in the works, a la a certain character that I earlier said I should not compare him with. Here, though, Lang disappoints. After an intriguing scene in which a female character that we know is a spy enters the agent’s life rather abruptly – she announces that she has shot someone, an act that apparently all romantic leads decide to cover for – the film takes a detour, electing to devote almost forty minutes to establishing that these two characters have fallen in love in spite of only having met on two occasions. It’s an odd choice, for it begins to affect the way we see the agent; he begins to resemble a naïve teenager so infatuated with a woman he has just met that he neglects his studies and spends all day just staring at her picture. I found myself thinking, “Doesn’t he have something more pressing to be doing?” Also hurting the character is Lang’s obvious insistence that Fitsch adopt poses and mannerisms that better fit a silent melodrama than a spy thriller. The result is that we see the supposed top German agent beating his chest in agony because he misses someone instead of setting those feeling aside for the greater good.
Alas, the film never really recovers from this, for having devoted so much time to that storyline, Lang cannot simply abandon it, and so we are treated to a multitude of scenes in which the female spy, Sonya (Gerda Maurus), proclaims her love for the agent to the last person she should confess it to. We also never get a clear explanation of Haghi ultimate goal. Is he just an anarchist, or is there a method to his madness? And as for why he wants the papers he expends so much effort trying to get, I’m afraid it is never made clear.
To Lang’s credit, the film’s second half picks up the pace, as time becomes of essence. There’s a real urgency in this part of the film, and a scene in a tunnel is quite suspenseful and impressively shot. However, this only serves to remind audience just how much time was wasted previously, and for a film that runs over two and a half hours, this is a cardinal sin. In a good film, that much time breezes by because its use of time is justified by what we see on screen. Unfortunately, I found myself looking at my watch far too many times. As for the film’s finale, I can only say it reminded me of another film involving that super spy that I said I should not compare it to, and not to one of his better depictions.
Sure, the film looks great. In truth, with Lang at its helm, how could it not? However, like some of Lang’s earlier films, its narrative just isn’t up to par. Agent 326 never comes across as a good investigator; in fact, he’s more lucky than observant; he’s also error-prone, and many of his actions play right into the enemy’s hands. In other words, he’s played instead of being the player. The film gets kudos for having an interracial cast and for presenting minority characters as being both professional and dedicated to the pursuit of peace and justice. In this, the film was rather revolutionary. One character is of Japanese descent, and it is interesting to see how the film explores what happens when he is presented with the chance of a relationship that he knows society – both his as well as that of others – frowns upon. So, the film was ahead of its time, and there’s no denying its influence on the spy genre we have today. But what does it say that those are some of the only things I find commendable about the film? To me, it says that Spies’s reputation as a great film is yet another case of impact clouding one’s perception of quality. The film lingers when it should run, emotes when it should focus, and misdirects when it should explain. In other words, without watching it and marveling at all of the ways it helped shape the films that succeeded it, Spies is simply not all that impressive. (On DVD and Blu-ray)