19:00 Introduction: Santos Zunzunegui
20:00 Spione (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1928, 144 min.)
It was Bertolt Brecht who stated that it was a much greater crime to found a bank than to rob one. While the professional meeting between the communist playwright and the sophisticated filmmaker did not materialise until the two were exiled in America due to the production of Hangmen also Die (1943), Spione --done fifteen years earlier by Fritz Lang with the invaluable collaboration in terms of its writing by Thea von Harbou (when will there be a specific retrospective view dedicated to one of the great screenwriters of silent film now that the wind is blowing in favour of certain “discoveries?”)-- seems a peculiar illustration of the famous dictum. Not just because the great criminal mind that dwells within the character of Haghi (in a new, more stylish assumption of the role by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who had already played —five years earlier— Dr. Mabuse) masterfully combines his public work (he is a respected banker) with a more hidden side (and polymorphous part of his personality; Haghi is a master of disguise) which is that his hideout (we could say his “registered office”) is precisely in the backroom of his financial institution. Lang himself made it clear in a presentation of Spione that took place in 1967 at the University of California that he had always used true events in his work and that, in the case of Spione, the story was directly inspired by a series of incidents that involved the trade delegation (really an instrument of political and economic espionage) of Soviet Russia in the United Kingdom, which was raided by Scotland Yard in the mid-1920s. And he did not forget to add, although this may seem less evident, that the fictitious “super-spy whose name was Haghi was played in a way inspired by the ‘political mastermind,’ Trotsky”.
Having said that, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that, whatever its realistic basis may be, the story (as had happened a few years earlier in the revolutionary text that Lang and von Harbou dedicated to Dr. Mabuse) is treated as a high-flying saga in a tradition that the cinema --along the lines set forth by Griffith and expanded upon by Feuillade-- took directly from Charles Dickens and the great writers of the nineteenth century. Therefore, this was a well learned lesson (as was already evidenced in the masterful film duo dedicated to Doctor Mabuse). However, whatever the merits may be that we wish to attribute to the prior cinematographic work by Lang (and there are many), what Spione brings to the table is a purification and stylisation of the elements used, without their variety being a hindrance for the film to end up as a "clear-line" piece in which the events unfold at breakneck speed, the narrative levels overlap masterfully, and there is a mixing of genres (the film doesn't lack humour). A single example: the presentation of Agent 326 helps to make this piece a work of art achieved by silent cinema in terms of its domination of storytelling through images.
Let us consider some of the elements that are masterfully combined by von Harbou and Lang. Of course, despite the fact that, as was already done with Mabuse, the majority of the critics took the film as a brilliant allegory of the future of the Germany that was starting to peek into the abyss (“Ein Bild der Zeit,” as the subtitle of the first part of Mabuse), it is important to remember that Spione is a brilliant assembly of pieces that were taken from here and there to build a country that is and is not, at the same time, Germany; that the story happens at a time that is and is not that of the historical present. That is the role played in the film by the digression that puts us into contact with a prim and proper military figure, traitor to his country, and whose visual pomp and narrative comes directly from the “Austro-Hungarian” films of Erich von Stroheim (still inspired, also, by a real case). Another thing happens with the exotic feel given to the story by the inclusion of the robbery of the Japanese treaty, which, in turn, justifies the appearance on stage of the character of Ambassador Masimoto (the brainchild of the actor and director Lupu Pick) and his short, tragic, and very beautiful love story which would culminate in nothing less than a seppuku. The same can be said of the “return” to stage of the overthrown Tsarist autocracy by means of the story of Sonja, an exiled Russian who fell into the clutches of Haghi and is used to perpetrate the most infamous of betrayals.
In fact, it is exactly that character who was involved in one of the most memorable scenes of the film when she was tasked with seducing Agent 326. It is a brief scene that barely lasts forty seconds: Agent 326 visits the Russian spy Sonja at her home (she is working for the archvillain Hagui) after having met her under bizarre circumstances. Love blossoms between the two and, meanwhile, the young man —incapable of taking his eyes off the woman’s face— rejects her invitation to have a Russian tea and takes her by the hand in a close-up shot. Here, a series of eight more shots begins that include images of the room's window (first in the daylight, and then after dark), a light that is turned on, a shop closing up, and a pile of evening papers. All of this with the added element of a dual superimposed image of a clock initially showing five o'clock in the afternoon and, later, seven o'clock. The series closes with a shot that is practically identical to that with which it opened: it was day, now it has gotten dark. The lovers continue in their initial position, with their hands intertwined. Here, we would be in that dimension that Noël Burch —the scholar who has best assessed the film's creative dimension— calls the “poetry of sluggish time.”
With that said, the only thing left to note (but you will notice when you see the film that this is a purely rhetorical comment) is what a critic in Berlin (cited by Lotte H. Eisner) saw with extraordinary clarity on the film's debut: “Fritz Lang has abandoned the formalism of The Nibelungs and of Metropolis (…) He has moved from the notions of the pictorial and the visual towards movement and the notion of the incident.” And just one thing as evidence: the scene that opens the film —a true “pyrotechnic poetry” (the expression, once again, is from Noël Burch, as well as the following description, with some short notes being added)— with is fast sequence of shots, equips the film with a continuous series of ellipsis: [“In the world, strange things have always happened…”] / gloved hands opening a safe / the hands putting documents in an envelope / a figure dressed in leather and riding a motorcycle / radio antennas: waves radiating / a newspaper headline announcing the robbery of secret documents [“Sensational Document Robbery… French Embassy… Shanghai”] / a car on the highway with a driver and passengers; another car drawing near; a shot / the passenger cringes, a hand takes his briefcase / a journalist talking on the telephone / another headline [“EXTRA! Attack against the Minister of Trade. The minister is dead as a result of his wounds. Important documents have disappeared. There is no trace of the perpetrator”]. For a few shots, the action becomes less fragmented but no less quick: shots of officials moving, confused, around their offices. Then the broken series of clips starts again: another headline / two officials making a phone call again and again / a minister or senior official sitting at his desk reading the newspaper / caption: [“Are the officials in charge of State security so asleep that our most important documents can disappear without a trace?”] / a car stopped in front of an official building, a man dressed in leather running upstairs and / entering in the building / and bursting into the diplomat's office and going up to his desk / caption: “I saw the man…” / close-up of a bullet going through a window / the minister looks astonished at what is happening: his view wanders from the window to… / the man wearing leather is seen falling / another shot of the minister, taking his hands to his head / caption: “Almighty God… What power has so much reach…?” / Close-up of Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) /and a large, handwritten caption: “ME”.
In few words, Spione is a film that has been buried by the fame gained by Fritz Lang's previous work, Metropolis. While in the 1950s the “Young Turks” of Cahiers du cinéma pointed out to the world that the American work of the filmmaker from Vienna was not less important this his earlier German pieces, now is the time to take a closer, less biased look at the specific weight of each one of the filmmaker's pieces -- no matter what period they belong to. I have no doubt that Spione should be given an honourable place in this filmmaker’s repertoire regardless of the point of view adopted when examining it.