Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Based on a Novel by: Thea von Harbou
Starring: Willy Fritsch, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gerda Maurus, Fritz Rasp, Louis Ralph, Lupu Pick
Producer: Erich Pommer
Running Time: 150 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I've had an excellent track record with Fritz Lang films (you can read my glowing review of Des Testament des Dr. Mabuse here). Admittedly, I've only seen a few, but each one has impressed me greatly. Metropolis introduced me to the wonders of silent cinema back when I was a teenager, M showed me that serial killer films were already in fine form back in the 30's and, more recently, Des Testament des Dr. Mabuse proved that blockbuster sequels could be masterpieces. Eureka released Lang's follow up to Metropolis, Spione (a.k.a. Spies), on DVD as part of their Masters of Cinema series back in 2005. I'd been very close to buying it in the past as it sounded like something I'd very much enjoy, but I'm glad I never took the plunge as now Eureka have upgraded the release as a dual format Blu-Ray and DVD set. I requested a review copy to see if it could match up to the other Lang films I'd seen and I'm pleased to report that it certainly did.
Spione is a spy thriller (if the English title didn't make that obvious) with a labyrinthine plot. I won't go into too much detail so as not to spoil things, but basically a spy ring headed by the evil Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is causing chaos at the government's secret service. Important documents have been stolen, dignitaries have been assassinated and double agents are springing up all over the place. Next on Haghi's list of crimes is to get his hands on a peace treaty to be signed between Japan and the UK, in the hope that he can use it to trigger another world war. The only man that can stop him is agent 326 (Willy Fritsch). Haghi is always one step ahead though and sends the cunning Russian spy Sonya (Gerda Maurus) to seduce him and lead him down a dark path. A spanner is put in the works however when Sonya and 326 fall in love.
If you think this all sounds a bit like a James Bond movie you wouldn't be too far from the truth. Although less obviously groundbreaking as some of Lang's more famous titles, Spione is clearly a huge influence on the spy thriller subgenre. It wouldn't surprise me if Ian Fleming was a fan of the film as the sex, violence and gadgets from his Bond series are all here (more from the films than the books perhaps).
And Spione is just as exciting as any film in the Bond series, if not more so. The film gets off to a breathless pace from the word go as great dollops of violence, intrigue and even a bit of comedy are dished out within mere minutes. I thought things would slow down, seeing as the film is two and a half hours long (the U.S. cut was only 90 minutes), but I never noticed a plateau. It may not always be as action packed as the opening or the spectacular final half hour (complete with car chase, brief two handed gunplay and explosions aplenty), but there's always some double crossing or sexual tension to liven things up. It really is a blast and I'm not exaggerating when I say it would easily match a modern blockbuster toe to toe when it comes to thrills.
Admittedly, the film isn't as stylish or visually mind-boggling as some of Lang's more famous German work and the production design is more straight forward (other than the ahead-of-their-time gadgets), but there are still a fair number of impressive shots and techniques in use. It's really in the content and pacing where it feels like Lang was pushing the boundaries though. It's probably the most modern-feeling silent film I've seen. It was released at the tail end of the period, but it still feels ahead of most of the sound-era spy thrillers I've seen from around 30 years following this.
I couldn't recommend Spione enough. It may lack the artistry of some of the silent greats, but it delivers excitement and entertainment in spades. Big and bombastic it may be, but sometimes that's just how I like it.
Spione is out now in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the Blu-Ray version and it looks and sounds great. There are signs of damage, but, considering no known negative of the film has been found, it's an incredibly impressive print. You get two choices of score too. A more orchestrated and modern sounding one from Donald Sosin and a piano-based one from Neil Brand. I briefly checked out the Sosin track, but opted to watch the film with Brand's score and I thought it was great, fitting the film nicely and containing some very impressive playing.
There's only one special feature, but it's an impressive one. It comes in the form of a 71 minute documentary on the film. I must admit I haven't had chance to watch it all yet, but the opening couple of minutes looked interesting and well researched, discussing the elaborate publicity stunts used to sell the film in Germany. At that length it's sure to be more than the usual fluff piece you get with many modern releases.
Finally, as always with Masters of Cinema releases, you get a leaflet in with the package, which is as strong as ever, containing 51 pages of essays and stills.