Spies is director Fritz Lang’s follow-up to the epic science fiction masterpiece Metropolis. Like Metropolis, Spies is also a silent film and if you watch the restored F.W. Murnau Foundation version, which comes in at 143 minutes, unless a student of cinema, you may find it a bit of a slog. That’s not to say that it is bad or boring, but it does take it’s time moving through the story, after branching off on various sub-plots. Despite this there are some amazing scenes – maybe not in Metropolis’ league, but impressive none-the-less. Even many of the less elaborate set designs are ground breaking, providing the blueprint for the spy films that would trail behind in the following decades.
At the centre of this film is the character Hagji, the villainous head of a criminal spy ring. Haghi is played by Rudolph Klein-Rogge who had played this type of role before for Lang, first in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, and then as the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis. Haghi, although a super villain in the traditional sense, is wheelchair bound and has an evil henchwoman / nurse who pushes him around and physically oversees the operation.
The other two main characters are Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), a good guy assigned to break Haghi’s spy ring, and Sonja (Gerda Maurus), who is Haghi’s most alluring, and ultimately dangerous operative. She is an old-school femme fatale.
Because she is evil, Sonja is sent to kill Agent 326. But what should happen? The two opposing agents fall in love. From that point on, Sonja refuses to carry out any more assignments for Haghi. Haghi is not happy and imprisons her at his secret headquarters (which happens to be a bank – with current interest rates, I find the idea that a bank should house the world’s ultimate villain quite amusing!)
This leaves Agent 326 to find and capture Haghi, and to rescue his imprisoned sweetheart. I make the story sound more straight forward than it is. There are quite a few subplots involving the Russians and the Japanese. Most of these merely show how evil and malevolent Haghi truly is. The demise of Japanese agent, Masimoto (Lupu Pick) is quite moving.
At the heart of this story is the love story, and in many ways it mirrors the lovers from the different levels in Metropolis. Only in this film, the lovers are not separated by different levels of society, but are separated by different ideologies. Also, this time it is the woman who sees the error of her ways, rather than the man.
As I mentioned at the top, Spies is a good film, but it won’t be for everyone. I think the key word for this film is ‘patience’. If you have the patience and are truly interested in the evolution of the spy film then here it is – the blueprint.