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The Rosetta Stone of spy movies is Fritz Lang’s Spione

The Metropolis director is known for shaping science fiction, but his influences run deep in other genres

A man holds a screaming woman at gunpoint while mist rises behind them in Spione. Image: Kino Lorber

Circa 1928, the famously bemonocled, infamously dictatorial director (directator?) Fritz Lang hit a rough patch in his career. His classic-to-be Metropolis had nearly bankrupted its parent studio, UFA. Setting out on his own with his own newly formed production company, he envisioned a new release designed to be an odds-on hit, while also leaving room for his pet themes of moral ambiguity and psychological ambivalence. He chose a title that would leave no room for confusion: Spione, released in America under the declarative title Spies.

Polygon is diving into the world of espionage throughout fiction and pop culture history with Deep Cover, a two-week special issue covering all sorts of spy stories and gadgets.

He had no idea how centrally foundational to spy films that movie would one day become. Spione has had even more impact than other Lang classics like M or Metropolis when it comes to shaping film’s future; it ranks as the second most-influential epic from the man who inspired George Lucas’ visual design for Star Wars. With Spione, Lang gave espionage cinema its Rosetta Stone, a generative masterwork setting the template for the next hundred years, from Alfred Hitchcock thrillers to James Bond.

As technological advances rang in the 1900s, a new world was developing new forms of war. Espionage has existed since the dawn of organized conflict — Sun Tzu emphasized the importance of knowing the enemy in his writing on military theory, and that was somewhere around 400 B.C. — but at the turn of the 20th century, the practice of gathering and weaponizing intelligence rocketed forward. One-off governmental operations and private enterprises like the Pinkertons gave way to the formation of official agencies, with Britain launching its Secret Service Bureau in 1909. Every superpower’s equivalent grew faster, leaner, and smarter, their capabilities expanded by the advent of portable photography for aerial recon and apparatuses to send or intercept radio signals. To an increasingly paranoid yet fascinated public, it all felt one step away from science fiction.

1894’s scandalizing Dreyfus affair ignited their imaginations, and the nascent genre of spy literature hurried to keep pace with the mounting hunger for tales of state-secret-smuggling double agents. These smooth operators evolved into the new swashbucklers, their adventures of international intrigue such stuff as paperback daydreams were made of. As World War I further raised demand, the upstart silent cinema heeded the call with shorts like 1913’s O.H.M.S. (featuring the rare female tragic figure, blackmailed into stealing a treaty from her commander husband) and 1914’s The German Spy Peril (in which a citizen hero gets the drop on some nogoodniks in from Deutschland plotting to blow up Parliament). But the Weimar Republic would soon deliver the breakthrough work codifying the appeal of the emerging spy movement.

Spione: A beady-eyed man with a goatee sits in a leather desk chair looking up, aghast, at what he’s just read in a newspaper. Next to him sits a magnifying glass.

Though about 40 minutes of Spione have been lost to the ages due to poor preservation, what remains of its sprawling three hours coined a fistful of tropes still in popular use on television and in movies today. Lang originated the secret agent identifiable by a three-digit numerical codename, the seated mastermind authoring pain from the safe remove of his hidden lair, and the femme fatale turned to the cause of justice by love and the transformative powers of good D. For all the durable building blocks of narrative the twisty script first pieced together, however, its most significant contributions speak to the deeper values and tolls of a dirty job.

In the opening scene, agency overseer Jason (Craighall Sherry) scans a riot-act letter from the Minister of the Interior informing him that one snafu too many has made their geheimdienst a laughingstock of the people. Enter their savior, the rakish German operative “326” (teen dreamboat Willy Fritsch, going against his usual boyish type with a grubbier appearance), who promptly demonstrates his skill by incapacitating a mole he catches with one of the tiny hidden cameras that amateur snoopers still favor today.

326’s mission to recover a stolen treaty poses existential stakes beyond the keeping of the peace. His higher-ups take his success as a referendum on the effectiveness of his still-nascent espionage department. As he proves his usefulness to his bosses, their top-down institutional meddling presages James Bond’s friction with M and his other handlers at MI6. Lang similarly argues for the poetry of spycraft’s senseless tragedy and tarnished nobility. With a deep cynicism paving a path to the jaded perspective of John le Carré’s writing, he takes stock of the many ways that intelligence work reduces individuals to interchangeable, disposable pieces ground up by the vast geopolitical machine they power.

As 326 maneuvers against the nefarious crime boss Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, having evidently gotten over wife Thea von Harbou ditching him to shack up with Lang), and the wily side-switcher Sonja (Gerda Maurus, with whom Lang had an on-set affair right under von Harbou’s nose), they leave assets spent and broken in their wake. With savage swiftness, the film speeds by an elected official killed as collateral damage and an opium addict squeezed for her husband’s intel.

The most pitiable character of all must be Dr. Akira Matsumoto (Romanian actor-director Lupu Pick in yellowface), the head of Japanese security, who’s tasked with protecting the treaty that will ensure cordial relations between his nation and England. He fails: Haghi sends a honeypot to prey on his compassionate nature, playing the helpless damsel in distress until he lets his guard down. His dreamlike final sequence, shot against a superimposed rising-sun flag design, strikes a poignant and complicated note.

Lang stereotypes Matsumoto and exotifies him, but seems to sincerely admire his humility and honor. The involvement of the Japanese (mending fences with Germany at the time, after their enmity in World War I) also set a precedent for plausible deniability in fictionalizing neutral international relations, still practiced by writers reluctant to get bogged down in the political nuances of real-world tensions between countries. Lang squirreled away his commentary in less obvious places; it’s not for nothing that bad guy Haghi looks just like Vladimir Lenin, dead only four years before Spione’s release.

A teary-eyed woman clenches a note and holds it to her cheek in Spione
A grinning man in an old timey motorcycle outfit revs up his motorcycle in Spione
A man wearing round glasses and a military hat side-eyes something off screen in Spione
A woman races through a hall that seems to collapse on her in Spione Images: Kino Lorber

As Adolf Hitler elbowed his way onto the world stage, Lang’s life came to resemble one of his own espionage yarns too closely for his comfort. The ascent of the Nazis drove a wedge between him and von Harbou, who pledged her allegiance to the Party as he fled to Paris to escape the “pigs.” As Lang recounted the events around his escape, he got on the train the night after German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels summoned Lang for a meeting to offer him the position of the Third Reich’s official kino-meister. When Lang pointed out that his Jewish heritage might pose a problem, Goebbels notoriously replied, “We will decide who is Jewish.” With Spione’s estimation of self-interest as a bitter necessity for survival, his embittered stance on the expendability of human resources took on greater prescience than he could’ve realized at the time.

For all Spione’s bleak outlook and low-key formal intricacy — don’t miss the breathtaking cut that sees 326 surface on a rooftop into a backlot dimension of expressionist set design — it’s still a crowd-pleaser, and a cracking action picture that presages Lang’s eventual decamping to Hollywood for two prolific yet less-celebrated decades in his career. (His anti-Nazi agitprop Hangmen Also Die!, co-written with Bertolt Brecht as the playwright’s only film credit, remains an essential part of his oeuvre.) The suspenseful editing patterns in a set piece that sends a runaway train hurtling toward our hero wouldn’t be out of place at your local multiplex in 2023, and the third act dutifully delivers a triumphant resolution dealing Haghi his just desserts. But there’s a sorrowful tang to his comeuppance, cornered onstage in a clown getup, driven to desperation before a cheering crowd.

Spione’s final shot shows the audience for Haghi’s finale as they erupt into applause, assuming that what they just witnessed was part of the show. In his essay on Spione packaged with a 2005 DVD release, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum singles out Haghi as the film’s most compelling character, possibly a figure of empathy for Lang in their shared string-pulling behind the scenes.

But underneath their archetyping, each of the movie’s main figures gets a chance to bare their humanity. There’s real turmoil in Sonja’s silent emoting as she swaps allegiances, and 326’s love for her renders him vulnerable in a profession that regards sentimentality as weakness, and death as the cost of doing business. When the under-the-radar work of spying could be rendered visible by art, it was received as escapist entertainment, eventually prettified into a sustainable model of globe-trotting and seduction. Before all that, Lang put the pain in plain sight.

Spione can be viewed for free on YouTube.