Every Sunday Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Fritz Lang’s Spies (1928)
With all the news of the next Bond being delayed and GK Films promising a new breed of spy thriller, it seems completely necessary to dig into the roots of the genre. Luckily, almost all of them were laid down when legendary director Fritz Land made Spies.
Maniacal villain in a wheelchair? Check. Bent on world domination? Check. Spy known by his numerical code name? Check. Lovely foreign beauty to fall for? Double check. Ridiculous gadgets? Bulletproof check.
Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch) is assigned the ultimate task of tracking down the hideous mastermind behind a well-run spy ring. That mastermind happens to be Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a bank director who sics the gorgeously Russian Sonja (Gerda Maurus) on the agent in order to distract him. It works too well.
I’m woefully ignorant of Willy Fritsch’s giant body of work in German cinema (his last credit actually being on the Inglourious Basterds soundtrack as a performer), but Rudolf Klein-Rogge is a name every cinephile should know. The guy was a master thespian in the earliest years of film and worked several times with Lang – most notably as Rotwang in Metropolis and as Dr. Mabuse in the series of the same name. He is the real draw of this film with a range of evil emotions that Blofeld would have sold his Persian cat for.
A possible drawback for modern audiences is that it’s a foreign film. Luckily for all involved, it’s also a silent film, so you have to read subtitles anyway.
The great thing about this film isn’t only that it gave birth to almost every single trope of the spy genre – themes that are in continual use to this day in movies and novels – but that it’s a genuinely entertaining, suspenseful film.
It starts on a pulse-racing high with a motorcycle speeding off into the night after a safe has been cracked wide open, and the action and ante only gets raised from there. If you are looking for symbolism, it’s a commentary on government’s inability to fight high-level crime with bureaucracy (something strangely prescient in 1928 Germany). If you’re not looking deeply, the film works as a taut thriller that will challenge your ability to gasp after holding your breath for an entire run-time.
Spies hit a year after Metropolis and a few years before his masterpiece of film noir, M. It was one of his very last silent films, laid a lot of groundwork for the genius of M, and rounded out the last few years of his Weimar years.
See it for its historical significance, see it because you’re fascinated by Lang, see it because it’s a damned good spy film. Yes, it was first (earlier spy films were basically re-enactments of war time events), and there’s a lot of praise that comes along with that, but because the genre has only moved a few inches beyond where Lang left it, Spies holds up shockingly well today even without sound. In fact, Lang was hobbled a bit by having to create tension without use of that particularly helpful sense. I’ve never had the privilege of hearing the original score by prolific and Oscar-nominated composer Werner Heymann, but Lang no doubt managed to imbue the entire film with fear by relying on striking visuals which should have aspiring filmmakers (and seasoned vets) taking notes.
Fortunately, even though there are no original prints in known existence, the film has survived and is available both on its own DVD and as part of the Fritz Lang Epic Collection.