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Lang's Marvelous Exploration of Modernity Hits the Heights
on 26 June 2013
Fritz Lang's 1928 silent espionage thriller, Spione (Spies) is one of his very best films and one of the best silent films period. Masters of Cinema present it here in a terrific pin-sharp Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung restoration which runs the full 145m and does full justice to Lang's terrific visual sense, Fritz Arno Wagner's astounding photography and Otto Hunte and Karl Vollbrecht's top art direction. The film is presented with an electronic score by Donald Sosin (not the original Werner R. Heymann and Artur Guttmann score used for the premiere) which drives the narrative forward superbly. Some might want a more 'natural' symphonic score, but the electronic effects are completely in tune with Lang's modernist project. The scoring for the build up to the train crash I found especially gripping. There are few of the extras one has come to expect from this source, but the Jonathan Rosenbaum review 'Inside the Vault' is interesting as is the production gallery of photographs on the DVD itself. There is no commentary, but this isn't as damaging as the lack of one for the Eureka Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler release which I recently reviewed. There, some knowledge of Weimar Republic history is essential for a full appreciation (perhaps that is provided by David Kalat in the commentary for the more recently-released MoC complete Mabuse edition which I haven't seen). Spione, however, is remarkable for lacking any of Dr. Mabuse's social critique, existing completely divorced from the socio-economic conditions of the time. I would certainly welcome a commentary telling us more about Lang's superb editing, his extraordinarily innovative use of off-screen space, the striking narrative ellipses and (in a film where the camera rarely moves) the terrific sense of movement present in almost every frame. We all have eyes I suppose, so my advice is simply watch carefully and discover the film's astonishingly effective precision story-telling for yourselves. If you want a close analysis, then I recommend the chapter on Spione in Tom Gunning's excellent book, Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity.
Viewed casually Spione doesn't seem to be 'Ein Fritz Lang Film' at all. Gone is the gloomy-doomy politico-socio-economic analysis of post-war Germany of Dr. Mabuse. Gone too, are the utopian architectural visual effects and fastidious crowd-control of Metropolis. And gone (apart from the odd scene or two) is the explicit Expressionism which informs Die Spinnen, Der mude Tod as well as Mabuse and Metropolis. New for Lang is a fresh obsession with close-up framing, a liberal splash of (very effective) comedy, an extraordinarily rapid cutting style, the afore-mentioned stunning use of off-screen space, a sentimental love story, and even a happy ending. In Spione Lang threw all his established film know-how up into the air and reformulated what would become through M the recognizable Lang style of the best films of his American years even if he never again recaptured this film's effervescence. Above all else in Spione is a sense of sheer joy at playing with the essentials of film-making (camera, editing, story-telling, acting) as if for the first time. Anybody dismissive of Lang as being a cold, manipulative purveyor of Teutonic gloom should view this and think again.
Spione may bring fresh technique to Lang's cinematic style, but look beneath the glittering surface of plots and counter-plots in this spy yarn, and the film is as Langian as any he ever made. First and foremost, the film is the second of his master criminal movies (if we exclude the slightly different Die Spinnen) and a useful way into it is a simple comparison with Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. The similarities are startling. Both films have Rudolf Klein-Rogge as their master criminals, Mabuse and Haghi respectively. Both films utilize similar framing devices. Both start with murder and the stealing of documents leading through extensive montage to pictures of the master criminals relaxed, job done. Mabuse's face is shown super-imposed over the empty stock exchange floor, a 'Master of the Universe'. The forceful opening montage of explosive action in Spione ends with a police detective asking the rhetorical question, 'who is behind all this [mayhem]?' and the huge close up of Haghi's face and the title, 'I am'. Both films end on policemen breaking into buildings. Dr. Mabuse stages a last stand gunfight as he defends his house while Haghi lets loose gas to stop the Haghi Bank from being breached. Both films end with codas. Mabuse escapes to his counterfeiting factory where he goes mad while Haghi reverts to disguise as Nemo, the clown, finally killing himself on stage having been cornered by the police. The framework is similar, but Lang inserts important differences. Mabuse is introduced in his dressing room, leafing through various possible identities and is connected with the theft and murder by various technologies, the stop watch, the telephone, the train and the car. He prevails because he has control over technology and the process is closely (one could say 'laboriously') charted by Lang. Mabuse has to make the effort of fielding phone calls, disguising himself as the Russian diplomat and then the stockbroker before going to the stock exchange in person to effect his master-plan. Haghi operates on an altogether more sinister, unseen level. The theft and the murders are shown at such pace and with such breath-taking efficiency that we are blown away by the sheer control over technology Haghi commands, but without even seeing him do anything. Lang is suggesting here that the new technological surface evidenced in Spione is much more advanced, more efficient, more abstract with Haghi seemingly behind all evil all of the time. The endings of both films also show Haghi finishing with the advantage. Mabuse ends up mad, out of his mind. Haghi ends up dead, but he has absolute control over everything we see in the film right until the end. He has lost his power, but he can still manipulate events on the screen right up to the final curtain which he brings down himself.
Fritz Lang's vision of modernity as consisting of a pattern of interlocking technological systems which feed one another is crucial for understanding how his films developed. These systems overlook and control mankind to the extent that in a Lang picture the protagonist is never in charge of his own fate. He is always locked into a 'destiny machine' (Tom Gunning's term) which determines his direction. All of Lang's films show characters trapped and manipulated by powers beyond their control so that fate, paranoia and fear of surveillance are the dominant forces that propel his narratives. At the beginning of both films, Mabuse and Haghi are locked into a destiny machine sending them towards complete omniscience. Later on, jolts in the relative workings of the interlocking systems of modernity puts a second party in control of the machine, dooming our master criminals to destruction. Mabuse is doomed when the detective chasing him (von Wenk) finally makes the connection between Sandor Weltmann, the conjuror, the elderly gambler who tricked him earlier and the psychoanalyst, Dr. Mabuse. He knows who Mabuse is and from that point he is in the driving seat. The core of the film's narrative rests on parallels drawn between Mabuse and von Wenk, master detective and master criminal who both use the same methods. With Haghi however, the destiny machine controling him changes course when his agent Sonja Baranikowa (Gerda Maurus) falls in love with ace secret agent, Number 326 (Willy Fritsch). It is the intrusion of desire, especially as magnificently spelled out in the train wreck when Sonja's love token (a Madonna and child amulet) falls on 326 waking him up and saving him from death, that spells out Haghi's demise. This is the first time in Lang's films that erotic desire has featured so prominently in disrupting the destiny of the main protagonists. This theme became even more important for Lang in America, especially with his trilogy of desire, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street and Secret Beyond the Door..., except by that time the Hollywood studio production code and Siegmund Freud had combined to ensure erotic desire was viewed as destructive rather than liberating.
The sheer abstraction of the new technological surface in Lang's vision of modernity is rendered by the director in a number of ways. The action of the film is driven by a series of telephone messages, telegrams, overheard conversations, wire taps and coded communications, all of which intersect on Haghi's desk, behind which he sits (in a Dr. Strangelove-like wheelchair!), presiding over the world. He has complete control of surveillance and so can manipulate the multiple sub-plots that the film charts - the blackmailing of Lady Leslane (Hertha von Walther) to provide information in return for Haghi not exposing her opium addiction, the manipulation of Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) by Sonja into selling military secrets, the theft by Kitty (Liene Dyers) of a treaty signed by Japanese diplomat Matsumoto (Lupu Pick) which would influence the Far East political situation. We never know why Haghi needs the information. His identity is never revealed. Lang later said he had Trotsky in mind. Others have suggested Lenin. The only certainty is that he represents 'the threat to world peace', whatever that may be exactly. In fact we don't even know what country we are situated in (another contrast with Dr. Mabuse where we are never allowed to forget we are in Weimar Germany). Haghi seemingly 'lives' in Haghi Bank, but behind the main office is a bizarre set (the only Metropolis-like monolithic construction in Spione) which consists of a huge cage with metal passageways and stairs running in all directions with people rushing to and fro to suggest - what exactly? A spy factory? A prison? A hospital? The set is deliberately abstract to suggest Haghi's extraordinary command over the new technology. This is a command rendered by complete control of surveillance with characters being clearly defined ('marked for death' if you like) by surveillance photographs taken of them, and often just by abstract numbers. Note the photographs of agents and criminals which the police commander Jason (a very funny performance by Craighall Shaw) shows 326. All are of dead (or soon to be dead) people and are marked by numbers. Lang deliberately gives his hero a number for a name (326) while the double agent is simply '719'. Other numbers to appear are Jellusic's claim check number at the telegraph office (the ridiculous square root of 37083+6), Morrier's prison number (37), 326's hotel room number 119/120 and Sonja's address (24 Parkstrasse), and most clearly of all the number of the train car (LDZ 33 133 no.8) in which Haghi dooms 326 to death. The build up to the train crash is remarkable in the way the number (first seen by Sonja on Haghi's desk) reverberates in her brain (and in the film's editing), finally revealing that quite opposite to Haghi's promise of letting her go with 326 in exchange for her taking secrets out of the country, he is actually arranging 326's death. Spione is structured like a huge jigsaw puzzle with Haghi placing the pieces one by one to further his ultimate plans (whatever they may be). Love erupts to abrubtly change this plan so that it is Haghi who is trapped at the end with 326 and Sonja's erotic desire dissolving his power.
Another distinctly Langian angle in Spione is the way characters tend to double each other. The powerful master criminal/master detective dialectic in Dr. Mabuse is reversed in Spione as Haghi's opposite number here (Jason) is deliberately played for fun by Lang. Haghi's complete mastery is mirrored you could say by Jason's complete absurdity. In the same way the film suggests the love of power (Haghi) mirroring the power of love (Sonja and 326's erotic attachment). In fact the film features two almost pornographic scenes which parallel each other. There's the scene where 326 meets Sonja in her apartment wherein he declines everything he is offered to be met by the question 'well, what DO you want?'. The camera cuts away as they hold hands and the series of images Lang gives us (including the first shop window to appear in a Lang film) lampoons the censorship controls of the time. When we go back to the couple they are still holding hands in the same position, but the time of day has obviously changed. We KNOW they have just made love even if Lang is not allowed to show it. Sonja's eventual spurning of 326 as she is called away to deal with Jellusic finishes with 326 finding her apartment completely empty. His (for the moment) loss of love is mirrored by Matsumoto's loss of love when he learns that Kitty has stolen the important treaty from his case in the afterglow of their love-making. That scene where Kitty throws herself at Matsumoto sees her barely able to stay in the provocative kimono she wears for the occasion. Earlier in the film Lang even has 326 and Matsumoto meet in the Olympic Hotel and it is obvious that they are meant (destined) to be doppelgangers. Over-riding the whole film of course is the doubling of Haghi with Lang himself. Haghi's mysterious absolute control over all events portrayed mirrors exactly the reality of Lang's complete control over making the film even down to the fact that it's the first product of 'Fritz Lang GmbH', his own production company. Rosenbaum points out the doppelganger relationship between Klein-Rogge and Lang as the actor had been the partner of Thea von Harbou before she took up with Lang. Further complicating matters is the fact that Spione is based on a book by von Harbou which she wrote concurrant with the film and that also during the film Lang had a supposedly sado-masochistic sexual relationship with Gerda Maurus. Reality does impinge on the fancy of Spione's multiple sub-plots even if it wasn't the socio-economic reality of the time.
Finally, there's Spione's huge influence on films and books - everything from Graham Greene to Ian Fleming and even Thomas Pynchon. Rosenbaum mentions Gravity's Rainbow, but the Pynchon book it most influences is V. This opens up the debate over Fritz Lang's place in the post-modern movement. If Spione (with it's paranoid world view which accepts abstraction and even confusion as a definition of the modern world) is a post-modern work, then that makes it an astonishingly prescient work of art for 1928. Just staying with film history, Spione certainly does bridge the gap between Louis Feuillade's serial-inspired works (especially Fantomas and Les Vampires) and Hitchcock's early spy thrillers. The 39 Steps is especially indebted to Spione from its depiction of paranoia in the world of spies to its direct allusion to 'the master criminal in charge of it all', and from its overt use of theatricality even down to its stealing of certain devices and motifs, like the bullet stopped by a book, except that in Spione it's stopped by a thick wad of cash! Then there is Spione's relationship to Metropolis which compares with North by Northwest's relationship to Vertigo. Spione and North by Northwest were deliberately meant as commercial rebounds to counteract the failures of the films that preceded them and both films' obsessions with spies and spying (a beautiful blonde serving as a pivot in both) make for obvious similarities. All in all, Spione is a remarkable film and it is amazing that it still seems to be languishing in neglect. I note the small number of reviews here on Amazon compared with those for Metropolis and even for Lang's next film, Woman on the Moon. This is crazy to me as Spione knocks both into a cocked hat. Buy this superlative MoC release and see what I mean.