A Fritz Lang silent film based on the book “Spione” by Thea von Harbou, with a script by von Harbou herself, is a taut, exciting version of the unrest, fear, and suspicion in a Germany still recovering from World War I. The German Secret Service shown is full of spies, German spies, either being paid by a spymaster, or being blackmailed by him, to provide information. There are regular citizens too, who have fallen into the spymaster’s clutches and are looking for the information he requires – especially information about the impending Secret Treaty with Japan. Interesting that Germany and Japan are depicted as allies some years before World War II.
The film begins with world turmoil quickly established, starting with the title card: “Throughout the world strange events transpire.” We see a safe opened by someone who knows the combination and ‘hear’ radio news: “Sensational theft of documents – French Embassy – Shanghai”. We see a man in an open touring car gunned down and a packet of papers stolen from his seat, and read a newspaper: “Extra! Assassination attempt on the Minister of Trade” And “The minister dies – Important documents – vanished. No trace of the perpetrator!” Naturally charges of government incompetence are made. Confusion and anger rule. Then a man rushes into an office and shouts, “I saw the man!” Instantly a bullet comes through the window, and he falls dead. A man in the room clutches his head and screams, “Almighty God! What power is at play here?” Immediate cut to a full-screen closeup of the spymaster.
Then a police summons is issued for Hans Pockerwinski. He turns himself in and is sent in handcuffs to the Head of the Police Department. Chief of Police is the cover identity for the Head of the Secret Service. Pockerwinski promptly spots and points out a spy within the department. His cuffs are removed and he turns out to be No. 326, the Service’s top secret agent! And this is only seven minutes into a 2 hour and 24 minute movie!
It seems only the Japanese Embassy’s Mr. Matsumoto knows how to fool the spymaster, and then he too is tricked.
Rudolf Klein Rogge gets top billing (well-deserved) as the villain spymaster – Haghi, owner/chief officer of the Haghi Bank. He is a cripple confined to a wheelchair, and he has a stout, strong-looking nurse in constant attendance. He controls a web of spies, some of whom have infiltrated government offices. Others are simply in a position to get information from the desk of a loved one. The heroine, Sonja Barranikowa, played by Gerda Maurus, is one such helpess spy. She gets second billing. And our hero, No. 326? Played by Willy Fritsch, he gets sixth billing. Fifth billing goes to Craighall Sherry, who plays Mr. Jason, the Chief of Police and Head of the Secret Service. Lupu Pick makes a big impression as Mr. Matsumoto. No. 326 and Sonja fall in love and he tries to rescue her, but ultimately it is she who must rescue him.
Long but not slow, with a big climax on a booby-trapped train, this is a thrilling ride. And the Kino DVD I watched boasted a beautiful print with a good musical score.
More: Rudolf Klein-Rogge was pretty much typecast as bad guys, and in fact played Dr. Mabuse in the first three movies made about that master criminal, one in 1922, and two in 1933. At the start of “Spies” when the radio announcement is made, we see a radio tower emitting visible sound waves. So did RKO Radio Pictures get the idea for their logo from “Spies”? Lupu Pick was born in Romania, and “Spies” was his last of 51 films – he died in 1931 at the age of 45. “Spies” was Gerda Maurus’s first film; in her second, “Woman in the Moon”, also for Fritz Lang, she again played opposite Willy Fritsch.