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Fritz Lang's rare Spione restored for London Festgoers

FRITZ LANG’S “SPIONE”, 1929, RESTORED

A major event of the current London Film Festival was a showing of a listening, newly restored print of Fritz Lang’s 1929 “SPIONE” (Spies). Appearing on the cusp of the sound era this was one of the final monuments of the silent cinema. The film is, to some degree, a reworking of Lang’s earlier “Dr. Mabuse", and is an extremely fanciful espionage story, apparently set in a mythological Czechoslovakia, with Japanese, German and British agents flitting about throughout. Lang was obviously more interested in breaking new ground in the way the camera is used to tell a story, than with telling a plausible story, as such. The villain, Haghi, the head of a huge banking concern in this mythical Czech Metropolis, is a kind of precursor of Dr. Strangelove, confined to a wheelchair at his office desk, from whence he issues egregiously evil orders to his underlings --
except at the surprise ending when he jumps out of his chair to the amazement of all. There are secret messages and large stashes of hidden cash, and suitcases of phony money, and train crashes in tunnels, and just about every gimmick ever used in the old spy flicks, but this is not the point of the film. The point is “cinema qua cinema” and Lang’s mastery of the medium – at that point still in its fundamental development stages – is evident throughout.
As the catalogue blurb puts it, “Around each of Lang’s meticulous images
hover the wispy presences of movies yet unmade -- ‘Spies’ served as the matrix for at least half of the movies ever made”. While such a statement may be just a bit ‘over the top’, the fact remains that, as far as the way the film is shot, it looks as if it could have been made yesterday. The same cannot be said for the characterizations, acting style and situations, all of which look more like “The Perils of Pauline” than “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”. Although the film is so well lit that old time silent film makeup was no longer needed, all the actors still have that garish black eye shadow all around the eye socket, which was so characteristic of earlier silents, probably because audiences were used to it and still expected it.

The sets reflect a certain amount of residual German expressionism, but look
basically modern, however, from today’s perspective the plot and situations
are so contrived that they now appear rather silly. Certain scenes brought roars of unintended laughter, but it was of the appreciative rather than the
derisive kind. For example, when the heroine and her lover are strapped to
a chair as poison gas is filling the room and are struggling desperately, kicking and bucking to break their bonds -- a race against time. She finally twists around and bites through his straps, then he unbuckles her with his free hand as they cough and sputter, but we know they’ll escape to safety. The action, and there was plenty of it, reminded me of the cliff-hanger serials we used to see at the Saturday matinees when movies still cost a dime to get in. Aside from the “bad guy”, Haghi, (Rudolph Klein Rogge) who is a total caricature almost as evil as Hitler, and looks something like him, the most memorable performer was the heroine, Sonia (Gerda Maurus), an elegant actress who looks like she could step into any current film, dressed exactly as she was then, and would not be a bit out of place today. Lang’s “Spies”, with its running time of 140 minutes, takes a little patience and suspension of contemporary screen belief to be fully appreciated for what it is, a milestone on the threshold of the sound era and quite a romp in its own right.

By Alex Deleon, London

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