1920s, 2/4, Fritz Lang, Review, Thriller

Spies

#32 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.

This is the second time that I’ve seen Fritz Lang’s follow up to Metropolis, and I was still not that into it. This tale of espionage in the interwar period is simply too loosely told to hold the kind of interest with me that, it seems, it holds with many other people. It’s ending is buoyed by some technically adept filmmaking, but the script is just simply far too unfocused to have the kind of exciting effect it obviously wants to have.

The film begins with somewhat of a bravura editing montage that describes the stealing of some state secrets by the criminal mastermind Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). There are heavy shades of Klein-Rogge’s other major role for Lang, Dr. Mabuse, here. Haghi has a spy network that has people inside the Secret Service’s own offices, to the point that when the Service’s Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch) is brought in through an elaborate ruse to maintain his secret identity, Haghi’s agents still manage several pictures of him, even though 326 catches one of them in Police Chief Jason’s (Craighall Sherry) own office.

And this is just about the point that the movie begins to lose me. Everything up to this point (maybe fifteen minutes of the film) had been solid, if perhaps a bit overactive, spy stuff. It’s here that Haghi decides to send the female spy Sonja (Gerda Maurus) to 326 to entrap him in Haghi’s plans. What are Haghi’s plans for 326? No idea. Does 326 have his own motives for spending time with Sonja? Well, I think he wants to love her. He has literally no clue that she’s a spy for anyone, much less Haghi. 326 begins his time in the movie making a great show of sniffing out Haghi’s spies in Jason’s own office, and the next hour is him courting a woman and doing no spy work at all. The movie becomes a romance.

Now, I wouldn’t really object to this shift in tone and, effectively, genre except that 326, the hardened spy, is acting like just some schlub that’s been swept off his feet by a pretty face. On the other hand, Sonja’s spy work has nothing to do with 326. It has to do with Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp), an Eastern European intelligence officer that has troop information that Haghi wants (why? I have no idea). Her orders to seduce 326 actually conflict with her standing orders to get the information from Jellusic to the point that 326 pursues her into the night after she leaves him in a nightclub and he almost ruins the meet with Jellusic. This is the first half of the film, and I really don’t think that Lang or Thea von Harbou (her script is based on her own novel) figured this part of the story out. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The romance doesn’t feel like it’s part of the larger plot. The romance is effective enough, though, in establishing the doe-eyed feelings between 326 and Sonja, so that’s something.

The information from Jellusic isn’t Haghi’s big goal, though. His goal is the text of a diplomatic agreement between Japan and the United Kingdom that is guaranteed to prevent war in the Far East. Why does he want this agreement to not make it to Japan? Does he want to start a war? I have no idea, but whatever it is, it’s bad. The Japanese ambassador has a plan, though. He sends three Japanese couriers on three different routes to Japan. One of them has the real package, except that they don’t have it. When he discovers that the three couriers have all died, killed by Haghi’s men, there’s a wonderful visual of the ambassador bowing in respect and apology to the ghosts of the three men before committing seppuku.

By this point, Haghi knows of Sonja’s dual loyalties. He brought her into his organization because her father and brother were killed by the Russian czar, and she wanted some kind of revenge against everyone for the wrong done to her. However, now she loves that fresh-faced young German spy, 326. Because he can’t have her, Haghi decides to take his vengeance out on them both, putting the pair on the same train and having 326’s car decoupled from the rest to get smashed in a tunnel. It’s about here where the film actually picks up and becomes the kind of spy-focused spectacle that it really wanted to be. It’s also almost two hours into the film. The only thing carrying it emotionally is that the romance from the first half of the film sort of worked in establishing the two as in love. Like most of Haghi’s plans in this film, the whole train gambit doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but when there are actual trains running into actual cars and the emotion of our two principles are clear enough, the necessity for the plot to make a whole lot of sense is lessened.

People get kidnapped. There’s a frantic race against time. Haghi seems to get away, but he may not be what we thought he was.

In the end, it’s fine. The ending does a lot to redeem the film up to that point, but the disconnect of the romance from the rest of the story along with the opaque nature of Haghi’s entire motive prevent it from connecting with me. Metropolis was a huge financial failure for UFA, the studio, and they slashed the budget of Lang’s follow up in response. I think it’s obvious. The film is smaller with a greater focus on conversations in rooms, but Lang still has some space to operate visually. There’s a boxing match in a club that’s got some very nice compositions. The aforementioned vision by the Japanese ambassador is quite striking. The practical use of trains in the ending is really nice.

However, as a whole, it’s just something I can’t really get into. It’s something of a mess of a film, and it feels like a real artistic stumble from such a promising director of sensationalist spectacle.

Rating: 2/4

8 thoughts on “Spies”

  1. It’ll be interesting looking back and see if Metropolis was Lang’s high water mark for spectacle. (He still has some very good, very dour movies ahead of him). A LOT of Lang’s Noir movies are just people in rooms, talking. Mind you, people are the things you care about in the end. Not sets. At least that’s true in my CGI-soured case.

    Another one I haven’t seen, another silent, I assume?

    I’m working my way through his Noir films, trying to get ahead of these threads 🙂

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    1. Yeah, it’s a silent. His first sound film was M, so soon…

      In terms of spectacle, yeah, Metropolis was it. He’d been building up to it through Destiny and Die Nibelungen, but the financial failure of Metropolis put the kibosh on him going any bigger.

      Hollywood seems to have not known what to do with him for a while until he got in on the ground floor of noir, arguably that’s Ministry of Fear for Lang’s involvement. I’ve seen handfuls of what’s to come after that, and I’ve seen nothing hugely ornate. Granted, I haven’t seen his final three films that he made in Germany, his third Dr. Mabuse film and the pair of Indian films, which could have something big in them.

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