Back in 2005, The Masters of Cinema Series released Fritz Lang’s much underrated spy thriller Spione (Spies/1928) onto DVD. Jump 10 years on and they have gone back to that original release and has boosted it with a brand new Blu-Ray release (although it is a Dual Format Edition really, so you get a DVD copy and a Blu-Ray copy for the price of one). James Harrison has been a fan of the film since he first got his hands on a DVD copy of it back in 2005; he even wrote a review for us back then. But now James returns to the world of Spione for this new release.
Considering Spione (1928) was made straight after Metropolis (1927) there could be some feelings of disappointment from regular cinephiles when they first see it. To be honest, I would give it a few viewings if you are entering the world of silent film for the very first time with this film anyway. The running time of 150 minutes (from the new Masters of Cinemas Dual format release) could also turn a few people off, but believe me; it is worth hanging in there as you will be in for a treat.
Regular silent film fans will probably be far more forgiving. But while people still dream of the cityscape found around the tower of Babel and the infamous waking of Maria in Metropolis you can find incredibly sharp editing, daring found with the storytelling and depth within the characters that Lang and fellow writer and wife Thea von Harbou have ended up establishing in Spione.
While Metropolis has the texture of a modern masterpiece with its epic scale of a futuristic world in turmoil, Spione drops us back in modern day Germany, in an underground world of low cut heroes and incredible super villains that are smeared into a world of fast transportation and communication. Spione also shows us a world of corruption, conspiracies and betrayal. To be honest, it is very much like Metropolis and since the reconstructed and restored edition of Metropolis arrived back in 2010 (also available via Eureka’s The Masters of Cinema Series Blu-Ray and DVD) which included the lost sections of Fritz Rasp’s Der Schmale (The Thin Man) the interest in the subject matter of a corrupt underground world must have enticed Lang and von Harbou to return to the subject.
But, before I move on, I just wanted to flag a little gem which many always miss when watching Spione. When watching the film keep an eye out for a sequence when Willy Fritsch’s character is running through the streets of the city, as you might see a line of film posters advertising a certain Fritz Lang film called ummmm… Metropolis. Even in the film itself, Spione cannot get away from the shadows of Metropolis! That’s it for me about mentioning ‘that film’, I’m planning not to mention it again. Possibly.
The story is simple and yet confusing; but after a few minutes, hugely entertaining. Agent No. 326 (Willy Fritsch) is given the mission to find and destroy an underground crime empire while trying to identify the infamous crime lord, Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). While doing so, he must keep out of the firing line of Haghi’s informers and survive from Haghi’s wrath. However when No. 326 falls for Sonya Baranilkowa (Gerda Maurus) who turns out to be his opposite number, he must try and keep ahead of the game as he is pulled deeper and deeper into Haghi’s hellish world.
Fritsch’s and Maurus’ characters are of course the key characters in the film, but, as always, the villain is the most enjoyable to watch and as always, Rudolf Klein-Rogge steals the show. After all, who would be the best person to have as your villain in a spy thriller film than Dr Mabuse himself! Klein-Rogge is the key to the entire picture really, incredibly evil throughout he very much ends up setting the mark for all film villains to come. In so many ways the wheelchair bound Haghi is very much the Ernst Stavro Blofeld of the silent era with his Lucifer looks to match. Although I am no way stating that Fritsch’s Agent No. 326 is anyway near to James Bond!
But it is worth noting that a few years ago, while sitting in Cinema 1 at Watershed for Bristol’s Slapstick Festival I watched a clip from a British silent spoof comedy (made post Spione) where the bad guys make up was identical to the look of Haghi. If I ever find out the name of that British silent film I will let you know; but it shows the impact of a character like Haghi on film culture at the time, something in which Blofeld would do 30 years later.
A quick update; I now have a name for the mystery film I mentioned in the paragraph above; it’s a silent comedy film by Walter Forde called Would You Believe It (1929) and a shot of the Haghi character can be found below. You can now see the clear resemblance of the real Haghi from Spione and the ‘spoof’ Haghi from the British comedy. A clear indication of how popular the Haghi character had become (as well as Spione). My thanks to our very own Mark Fuller who (as always) was able to name the film almost immediately! (edited 17/11/2014)
Nothing remains of the original negative of Spione, so the result made by the efforts of the Friedrich–Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung is (as always) a superb quality print. Much was taken from a high quality nitrate copy found at the Národní Filmový Archiv in Prague, while extra material was found throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
And although particular segments of the restoration show minor damage such as scratches, these can only be found when examining the transfer very closely. Finally the black levels found on the print are also very affluent, rich and deep, although at times the white contrasts do seem to be a bit too bright. Like the past Masters of Cinema DVD release in 2005, the film is accompanied by a very good score by Donald Sosin, although there is an alternative piano score by Neil Brand as well, exclusive to the Blu-Ray however.
Back in 2005, when I reviewed the original Spione release by Masters of Cinema I did comment on the lack of extras on its release. With this 2014 re-release, they have done their best by including a 71 minute documentary about the film (always worth it) but sadly this (like Neil’s piano score) is exclusive to the Blu-Ray copy only; while the original 20-page booklet (containing an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum) has been boosted into a 52 page booklet for this re-release.
Spione has been left in the dark for so many years because of a certain film Lang made before it and the two films he made after (Frau um Mond (1929) and M (1931); also both available via The Masters of Cinema series).
With this fantastic new re-release it’s about time that Spione is celebrated as one of the key pieces of work by Fritz Lang. Highly recommended!