Horizon lines and vanishing points can sometimes be about as rare to come by in Fritz Lang’s cinema as tracking shots are in Yasujirō Ozu’s. In 1928’s Spies, because of the geometric enclosures of the sets and the frequently downward-facing scan of Lang’s camera, the background of the 4:3 frame is nearly always a wall, the ground, or a cluster of set elements that foreclose the margins of the characters’ space. In the opening shot, which shows a padlock up close before two ominous gloved hands enter the frame to pry at the lock, Lang first conceives of a restricting visual field and then confines human figures within it—all the better to hint at the invisible forces that govern individual lives.
Goateed and clad in black, with silvery eyes deeply shaded by what must be profound sleep deprivation, Spies’s central villain, Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), is the mercurial human form of these forces, the origin point of a spider’s many prickly limbs. A big-banker with shady ties around the globe, he’s often seen staring directly into the lens, a haze of cigarette smoke billowing magnetically around his head—the only instances when a will stronger than Lang’s own seems to be dictating the camera placement. The immediacy of the framing underscores Haghi’s role in Lang’s spy-thriller narrative as a great manipulator: He literally incites the movements of the plot with a series of blackmails and threatening schemes while also seeming, due to the enigmatic causal relationships implied by Lang’s aggressive montage, to hold sway over time and space. And yet, for much of the film, he’s pinned to a wheelchair in a sterile office space, cared for by an elderly woman.
Less effectual in his relative stasis is secret service chief Jason Burton (Craighall Sherry), who, when informed of a grand intelligence theft ultimately masterminded by Haghi, can do little but bang his fists in anger and put a dapper upstart on the chase. That would be No. 326 (Willy Fritsch), who thus becomes the fleet-footed guinea pig for Haghi’s plots, but does manage to court the crook’s reluctant female accomplice, Sonya (Gerda Maurus), along the way. In doing so, No. 326 throws a wrench into Haghi’s design, a complication later echoed when one of the banker’s international henchmen develops a personal relationship that compromises his usefulness and finally compels him to suicide. This tyrant’s machine-like omnipotence allows for no operational glitches, yet he still weakens with each digression from the script, his criminality increasingly exposed.
All of Spies’s action takes place in an anonymous European territory further obfuscated by the procession of more or less interchangeable rooms within which the double dealings, forbidden romances, and cyanide ingestions play out. There’s a sense that all the espionage and counterespionage is bereft of actual consequences: A climactic train collision concocted by Haghi to dispense of No. 326 is thwarted by a prudently timed and executed escape plan, and even the aforementioned suicide unfolds as a succession of expressionistic images that rely more on audience inference than direct representation. Guns are abstract things handled by disembodied hands reaching from off screen or pinching through crevices, taunting reminders of Haghi’s all-encompassing control more than deliverers of deadly wounds.
At stake, then, isn’t a bunch of unidentified confidential information logged on stolen papers, but rather the ability for human license to break free from a strictly assembled cinematic architecture—the place of spontaneity within directorial assertion. After Sonya rescues No. 326 from peril in the rubble of a stricken train car, they race out from the underground tunnel and into broad daylight, leap into a car, and put pedal to the metal though a country road. Suddenly, for the first extended stretch of time, the horizon is visible, if only as a speed blur. Haghi, clairvoyantly sensing his compromised authority, re-tightens his vice grip and sends his thugs after the lovers, but his control has suffered a fatal blow. In Spies’s final stretch, the cat-and-mouse chase is flip-flopped, with Haghi retreating into various guises to circumvent his indictment. The last of these disguises, and the one that sends the film off on a richly uncanny note, is that of a clown. That Lang imagines the all-seeing artist as both an oppressor and a fool leaves Spies with a final, lingering complexity that can’t help but feel like the riddle through which to contemplate the filmmaker’s ensuing body of work.
Maximizing clarity without scrubbing negatives of character has evidently been Kino’s noble mission on their recent releases of classic titles, and this new Spies transfer is no exception to that ethos. Fritz Lang’s ashen chiaroscuro and penchant for embellishing his actors’ faces, especially during his pre-American career, with evocative makeup are served well by such an attention to detail. As for the soundtrack, Neil Brand’s typically busy piano acrobatics receive a bright, high-fidelity reproduction.
An incredibly detailed 72-minute documentary, "Spies: A Small Film with Lots of Action," provides more than five long-winded retrospective interviews ever could. It gets a bit bogged down in the minutia of material history, heaping attention on pre-production and casting stories, dwelling on Lang’s contracts with UFA, and conducting a thorough discussion of the granular discrepancies between the film’s original cut and the shortened version for foreign markets. But, thankfully, the meat of the piece is an extended exegesis of the emotional dynamics of Lang’s staging, his cryptic uses of hand gestures and written letters, and the film’s relationships to contemporary political and social happenings. A curious original trailer, which sluggishly strings together rather arbitrary shots played out in full, fills up remaining real estate on the disc.
Kino’s superlative presentation of the full 150-minute original cut of Spies enables us to see, with unprecedented clarity, the film’s modernist approach to genre as a transitional impulse in Fritz Lang’s early career.