Ismo Santala on the subversive pulp fiction of
Lang’s 1928 silent thriller
The quick-paced opening sequence of Fritz Lang’s silent thriller Spione (1928) counterpoints a carefully orchestrated crime spree with the gross incompetence of the law. After a series of assassinations and thefts, an agent rushes into the office of a trim government official. Gasping for breath, the operative tries to tell his superior who is behind the havoc. Just then a single bullet pierces the window and the agent falls dead on the floor. The balding old man slowly raises his hands to his temples: “Almighty God – what power is at play here?”
Cut to the face of Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) with its calm, reptilian eyes and taut lips. The lips begin to part and a manic, especially hand-painted “ICH!” fills the screen. Leading the double life of a bank director and a criminal mastermind, the wheelchair-bound Haghi has harnessed communications technology to the service of spying and blackmail. Contrary to the governmental desks, which are lucky to be equipped with a lone telephone, Haghi’s is full of gadgetry. A set of phones adorn the desk, and the rest of the space is littered with various dials, switches and wild contraptions.
Besides cutting-edge hardware and henchmen in leather coats, Haghi’s spying empire also relies on the tried-and-true employment of vamps and sex kittens. Blowing cigarette smoke liberally about the room, Sonja Barranikowa (Gerda Maurus) reports that she has her current prey around her little finger. Haghi, his head resting against the back of the chair, closes his eyes, as if enamored by both the knowledge of his increasing clandestine power and the very fragrance of the smoke which carries a faint trace of the young woman.
Sonja’s chance of freeing herself of Haghi’s submission arrives in the form of a secret agent determined to bring down the leader of the criminal network. After discarding his vagabond disguise – complete with a Chaplinesque bowler hat – No. 326 (Willy Fritsch) emerges as the archetypically sophisticated man of intrigue. The exaggerated acting and phrasing which works well enough with the grimacing thugs and high-rolling dandies falls flat with the developing romance between Sonja and her secret agent: “Make me a gift of this evening!” No. 326 coos while kissing Sonja’s hands.
Once Haghi gets wind of the relationship, he turns the cat-and-mouse game between the two espionage factions into a personal battle of wits over the girl. The film is organized in roughly episodic units which see No. 326 getting closer to Haghi one obstacle at a time. Much like in the Dr. Mabuse films or in his 1931 masterwork M, the episodes of Spione give Lang a wonderful opportunity to flaunt his interest in the complex interplay of social (crime syndicates, the police) and technical (architecture, industrial design) structures.
Lang’s direction insists upon a fixation on the physical world through the use of framing and the time allowed for the examination of the selected ephemeral details. The film’s most alluring moments are of close-ups exploring the textures of different objects. Serif-heavy documents with names, dates and the odd notation added by hand rival the bygone designs of stationery and lamp shades in their peculiar force, as do the ornaments of Orthodox Christendom on the walls of Sonja’s apartment. This obsessive attachment to objects is something that makes it impossible to classify Spione as throwaway pulp fiction.
A definite eroticism runs through this kind of visual reverence. The women’s clothing carry an especially high erotic charge: the camera lingers on the particulars of their snug dresses, gloves and hats. In a scene of playful sexual innuendo, Sonja’s enemy is swiftly approaching a door separating the pursuer and his quarry. The lock is located a little lower than the handle, so its position matches that of the man’s groin. The moment the man tries to open the door, Sonja flips the protruding lock and disables him from coming in.
Spione is an urban film, a film of concentration and interiority. Even the few street scenes have a cloistered feel to them, so that the nameless city comes off as one giant interior. The major difference between the inside and outside seems to be whether the walls are covered with floral wallpaper or poster artwork. So it is not unsurprising that the weakest segments of the film take place in the country. A temporary move from chimeric intrigue to uncharacteristically direct action also occurs during the sabotaged train ride and the following highway chase.
The sense of pent-up energy – the frustrations of violence and sex – is best captured when No. 326 and Sonja go out to spend the evening together. The scene begins with an overhead stationary shot of the final moments of a boxing match. Immediately after the knockout, the lights come back up and the orchestra resumes their playing. Dozens of well-dressed couples flock the space surrounding the ring and commence dancing. A swirl of violent motion is replaced by superficially stale romancing, but both energies are strictly regulated within the same geometric structure.
Released as part of Eureka’s “Masters of Cinema” label, the DVD presentation does justice to the film. Although Donald Sosin’s newly composed soundtrack somewhat mars the attentiveness of the eye on the first screening, the score works better on repeat viewings. The disc comes with a booklet containing an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum which offers good background information on Lang’s film. Rosenbaum also draws attention to Spione‘s artistic lineage when he notes that the early Surrealists adored feuilletons such as Fantômas by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. Both influences have their place in the film’s plots and counter-plots executed with fetishistic gleam, making Spione subversive pulp fiction at its most arresting.