Fritz Lang’s previous film Metropolis -probably his most well known- was a financial disaster, the costs of production far exceeding the return at the box office. In fact the situation was so bad that UFA Studios in Germany were considering dropping Lang from their roster of directors.
Lang managed to win back the confidence of UFA with a comprehensive letter to the studio bosses. He sealed a contract with them to make a further two films, on condition that they would be made under considerably smaller budgets (reduced by about eighty percent) and in a considerably shorter time frame. Roughly one hundred days per film, as opposed to the approximately three hundred day shooting schedule of Metropolis.
With these restrictions in place, Lang and his then wife Thea von Harbou (the writer of Spione) had to seriously rethink their approach to filmmaking.
Mostly out of financial necessity, Lang abandoned the lavish Gothic and Art Nouveau sets of Metropolis filmed in wide camera shots, opting for smaller intimate set constructions with less ornamentation. Much of the action was now contained in rooms with white washed walls with little in the way of props, using close-ups and medium shots. This effectively abstracted the film by removing any sense of place. Add to this precise surgical editing, a shot lasting the absolute bare minimum needed to convey its information. Inadvertently Lang was forging a new style of filmmaking with Spione, a style described by one critic as ‘Abstract Realism’. It can be seen in full bloom in his first sound films a few years later, ‘M’ and ‘The Testament of Dr. Mabuse’. Lang would continue to explore this style for the remainder of his career, until his final film ‘The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse’ in 1960.
Filming of Spione began with the films few exterior action sequences, the berserk two-minute sequence that opens up the film (a rapid succession of supremely edited shots from disparate locations) and the other two at the tail end of the film. One an episode involving the sabotage of a train carriage and another a car chase starting on a country road and ending in the city (the locations of the film remain mysterious) streets with the car plunging through the wall of Haghi’s headquarters. Such action sequences laid the groundwork for future Bond style espionage films, which would also mine Spione’s use of gadgetry, like the miniature thumb nail size camera discovered on a cover agent by agent No.326. Spione can be seen as the little known granddaddy of them all. Lang himself was much fascinated by and drew ideas from master French filmmaker Louis Feuillade’s highly influential silent crime serials like ‘Les Vampires’ (1915-16).
Spione differs significantly from the espionage thrillers that were to follow. Unlike them, in typical Langian fashion, it favors the villains over the heroes. Government spy No.326 gets little screen time in comparison to super-villain Haghi who is seen in practically every second shot. There is nothing heroic about any of the characters in the film. No.326 enters the film in the disguise of a tramp, in need of a bath and a shave. He is slightly built and fairly pathetic looking. Haghi, apparently crippled, has a blanket over his legs in his wheelchair behind his huge desk with its various telephones, microphones and panels with rows of buttons. The desk acts as a barrier between him and the outside world. Its an imposing geometric shape dividing each frame it appears in into two, creating an uncomfortable separation between himself and this clientele on the other side of it. The majority of his physical connections with the world seem to be made through the apparatus of his desk, the controls of which he toys with to establish communications with his network of accomplices. It’s almost as if the way the film unfolds is determined by Haghi, as he pushes various buttons. Throughout the film, we return to the master controller behind his desk.
A plot (one among many counter plots) involves a Russian woman Sonja, who is simultaneously Haghi’s coerced right hand and in love with agent No.326. She becomes tangled in another plot involving a peace treaty which agent No.326 is trying to protect. Haghi is bent on stealing the treaty (which signifies peace between the Weimar Republic of Germany and Japan) from Japanese diplomat Matsumoto. The loss of this treaty could have serious consequences for Germany. Haghi’s agents intercept Matsumoto’s as they are in the process of delivering the treaty to Japan, murdering them in the process of acquiring it. In an eerie double exposure, Matsumoto hallucinates his three dead agents returning three fake treaties to him. Matsumoto promptly commits Hara-kiri.
Unlike the linear Ian Fleming narratives of the Bond thrillers, Lang populates his film with ambiguous images and situations. Spione has the logic of a dream. On the surface, Haghi seems to operate from within the office of a large bank, of which he is apparently the president. But the architecture of angular criss-crossed iron staircases and platforms suggests the inside of a prison block. At one point a man, who Haghi has just freed from death row, is dragged up the staircases by masked men in black overalls and brought into Haghi’s office where he is pardoned before his desk. The fact that Haghi constantly has a private nurse grooming him in his office, suggests he may actually be a patient inside a hospital or the director of that hospital. Haghi has another persona; he is also Nemo the clown. In a mischievously inserted scene we see Nemo (Haghi) in his dressing room backstage putting on his clown make-up, while he holds a conversation with No.326 and his superior, adjusting his wig and make-up in the mirror. Indeed one becomes lost in the labyrinth of Spione’s intersecting plots within its one hundred and fifty minute (the restored version) running time. Apparently the American release of the film was edited down by a third of the time, certain events even changing position in the film, in an attempt to make the film more comprehensible by ironing out the ambiguities.
In the final minutes of Spione, Nemo is on a stage in his clown suit with painted face surrounded by strange props. He looks out at the large crowd seated around the perimeter of the stage, wielding a toy pistol, shooting at giant music notes rising up from his piano and a puppet fly hovering over the stage on strings. He laughs hysterically, as does the audience. At the sidelines of the curtains backstage we see agent No.326 and other agents poised with their guns pointed at Nemo. They have finally succeeded in putting two and two together with the help of some incriminating document, identifying him as one and the same person. Haghi (Nemo) realizing he is trapped puts the gun to his head and shoots himself as part of the act. The black curtain drops obscuring the stage, as the word END appears.