Inside the Vault [on SPIONE]

An essay commissioned by Masters of Cinema in the U.K. for their DVD of Fritz Lang’s Spione, released in 2005. This is reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago, 2010). — J.R.

If Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) anticipates the pop mythologies of everything from Fantasia to Batman to Star Wars, his master spy thriller of four years later seems to usher in some of the romantic  intrigues of Graham Greene, not to mention much of the paraphernalia of Ian Fleming, especially in their movie versions. No less suggestively, the employments of paranoia and conspiracy by less mainstream artists such as Jacques Rivette (Out 1) and Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow) seem rooted in the seductively coded messages, erotic intrigues, and multiple counter-plots of Spione.

One is also tempted to speak of Alfred Hitchcock, who certainly learned a trick or two from Lang —- though in this case the conceptual and stylistic differences may be more pertinent than the similarities. One could generalize by saying that Hitchcock is more interested in his heroes while Lang is more interested in his villains, and the different approaches of each director in soliciting or discouraging the viewer’s identification with his characters are equally striking, especially if one contrasts the German films of Lang with the American films of Hitchcock.

Comparing Giorgio Moroder’s re-edit of Metropolis with Lang’s original, film scholar Thomas Elsaesser has theorised that “much of 20s German cinema was based on a visual grammar different from what we have come to accept as the norm, namely Hollywood-type continuity editing. Moroder gives the narrative a unilinear direction, via establishing shot, scene-dissection, close-up, by the simple expedient of relying on reverse-field editing, and point-of-view shots to generate continuity, cutting out most of the inserts which in Lang’s version had separated — in time and in space — the characters’ looks from their objects.” For Elsaesser, “the hallmark of Lang’s style” that’s missing in Moroder’s Metropolis — and, by implication, in most Hollywood movies, including Hitchcock’s — “is precisely the interpolation of disorienting or disrupting visuals into the classic match-cut sequence, making what is represented seem ambiguously motivated and always happening at one remove.” (1)

Paradoxically, the results of this style can be described as more objective and distanced yet also more abstract and dreamlike, because the continuities established are more metaphysical than physical, and sometimes more irrational than rational in the bargain. For related reasons, including its voluptuous performances, Spione is easily the most erotic of Lang’s German films, and perhaps the only one (discounting a few mad moments in Metropolis) that borders on the pornographic.

Significantly, the villain, Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge — who had already played both the title role in Dr Mabuse der Spieler and Rotwang, the villain in Metropolis) — is more central and prominent than the hero (Willy Fritsch), who’s identified in the credits only as “No. 326”. It is Haghi, after all, who is the first and last character of any importance that we see in the film. Architecturally, he’s the principal support of Lang’s house of fiction, holding up the entire structure, because every narrative path leads either up to him or away from him; like a telephone switchboard, he’s plugged into everyone and everything. In this respect, he clearly functions as Lang’s surrogate — an all-knowing puppetmaster who not only creates and animates the plot but also ultimately terminates it when he finds himself cornered in the final sequence. Disguised as an onstage clown, he shoots himself in the head as part of his act, soliciting a round of applause from the onscreen audience and thereby ending the film itself as the curtain falls. (The fact that Klein-Rogge was the first husband of Lang’s wife and co-writer Thea von Harbou only enhances his role as Lang’s doppelgänger.)

Lang shares with Orson Welles a taste for using powerful authoritarian figures to forge a kind of autocritique of his own artistic practice and its will to power. He differs in using actors other than himself to play these roles and in his emphasis on sadomasochism — as well as his curious interest in tyrants figuring as pimps and erotic matchmakers, which is particularly pronounced here.


The first film to have been made by Lang’s own production company, Spione economized in time and money after the outsized expenditures of both on Metropolis, his previous film. However, given Lang’s clout and pre-eminence during this period — even after Metropolis failed to make back its budget — one shouldn’t conclude from this that his resources were any less lavish. The shooting of Metropolis consumed 310 days; though the shooting of Spione only took about a third as long — fifteen weeks, or about a hundred days — this was still, according to Lang in a 1969 interview, over twice as much time as he was allowed on any of his Hollywood films, where he “never had more than 42 or 45 days.” (2)

Immensely popular with the German public, Spione was the first film ever carried to the U.S. by plane, where it was released by MGM in a substantially shorter version — 50-odd minutes less than the original 143. This re-edited version, with No. 326 renamed “Donald Tremaine” — presumably as a concession to the Anglo-American audience -– has been the main version available until this new restoration. As far as I’m aware, it hasn’t been proven  that Lang oversaw the abridgement of the export version, but it seems likely he did given how much of the film’s original conception and editing was retained, in contrast to the relative butchery carried out on Metropolis after its own initial release. Even the most glaring difference in the editing is highly instructive in the way it highlights the film’s overall Lego-like construction of almost interchangeable parts — a facet that seems to be one of Lang’s main preoccupations throughout. This is a scene in a post office in which the hero writes to his headquarters a message whose contents are intercepted by the villain’s lackeys through the carefully prepared-for ruse of reading the message’s impressions on a blotter. In the original, this event occurs about 90 minutes into the film, but in the export version it was moved up to a position near the beginning, shortly after the hero makes his first appearance. Thanks to this radical shift, the country where the scene takes place isn’t the same and the message isn’t the same, yet the function of the scene is almost identical.

One might argue that Spione was in some respects a more personal project for Lang than its gargantuan predecessor — even though, ironically, one of its most personal touches is in fact a cluster of posters for Metropolis seen on a city street at night, surely one of the first in-jokes of its kind. Superficially, this entertaining movie might appear to be a simple yielding to public taste in its emphasis on straight-ahead action and sexy intrigue, but it’s actually a return to Lang’s sources — a kind of compression and refinement of his 1922 Dr Mabuse der Spieler (with its villain made into even more of an abstraction by virtue of the sheer unmotivated gratuitousness of his schemes) as well as the even more lurid 1919 Die Spinnen before it. (It’s also a brilliant forecast of the découpage of M that links together diverse social forces in a montage pattern structured around a central figure who goads these forces into action and eventually becomes their victim).

There seems to be general agreement now that the most seminal of Lang’s early influences was Louis Feuillade serials like Fantômas (1914), Les vampires (1916), Judex (1917), and Tih-Minh (1919) — paranoid crime thrillers that were often drawn from newspaper serials or feuilltons, mainly filmed in natural locations and sometimes improvised, following the mysterious adventures of high-tech, conspiratorial gangs that preyed on the rich. (The comic servants in Les vampires and Tih-Minh who are more resourceful than their masters are recalled in No. 326’s valet cleaning up after his employer when the hero turns up in his deluxe hotel suite in his sooty tramp disguise.) Though Lang was more prone to shoot in studios and plot out his stories in advance, he had an unapologetic taste for the same sort of pulp fiction derived from both newspaper stories and current events as the criminal exploits celebrated by Feuillade, and Spione can be regarded as the apotheosis of that tendency in Lang’s work. In films of this kind, he remarked to Jean Domarchi and Jacques Rivette in 1959, citing specifically Dr Mabuse der Spieler and Spione, “there is only pure sensation, character development doesn’t exist.” (3) Neither does social analysis in the case of Spione, at least in any ordinary sense — though arguably the social implications of Lang’s formal patterning remain relevant on a more subterranean level, as a kind of dream material.

Spione was directly inspired by a story in the London Times during the mid-1920s about the so-called Arcos raid. A special branch of Scotland Yard raided a Russian trade company called the All Russian Co-operative Society, or Arcos for short, under the suspicion that it was a spy ring. To be sure, Lang’s desire to exploit newspaper headlines and public fears would achieve a different kind of fruition when he combined it with overt social analysis a few years later in M — something he had already done to some extent in Dr Mabuse der Spieler.

However, the more disreputable fantasy-based elements of this impulse in Spione are a bit harder to separate from Lang’s social conscience and his analytical impulses than one might initially suppose. Indeed, critic Tom Gunning persuasively argues that Lang himself would subsequently confuse Spione with Dr Mabuse in his memory while describing the latter’s relevance to contemporary events. (4)  Norbert Jacques, whose novel provided the source of Mabuse, was more culturally respectable than Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain (the latter two co-authored the original Fantômas feuillton), at least to the extent that he was viewed by some as a social commentator and not merely a spinner of tales. Yet a desire to exploit the irrationality of certain contemporary public fears could surely be found in both sources. At least part of the difference in cultural prestige between, say, Fantômas and Dr Mabuse, or between Mabuse and Spione, was attributable to fashion. Even the French Surrealists provocatively defended a Feuillade serial in 1928 (the year of Spione’s release) without mentioning its director by name: a character in a play written by Louis Aragon and André Breton declares, “It’s in Les vampires that one must look for the great realities of this century.”

German intellectuals of the period such as Rudolf Arnheim and Siegfried Kracauer who would later be respectful of M regarded Spione with a certain amount of scorn. (Both seemed especially irritated by the elaborate ballyhoo surrounding the publication of von Harbou’s spinoff novel of the same title, as if it were a literary classic.) Comparing Spione to Dr Mabuse, Kracauer argued that both films “refrained from conferring moral superiority upon the representatives of the law. Espionage and counterespionage were on the same level — two gangs fighting each other in a chaotic world. Yet there was one important difference: while Dr. Mabuse had incarnated the tyrant who takes advantage of the chaos around him, the master spy [Haghi] indulged in the spy business for the sole purpose, it seemed, of spying. He was a formalized Mabuse devoted to meaningless activities.” (5)

Insofar as the treaty in Spione stolen by Haghi’s agents from Matsumoto (Lupu Pick), a Japanese diplomat, is important only because it’s stolen, not because of its contents, it’s easy enough to see Kracauer’s point. Arnheim arrived at a similar conclusion, but gave more prominence to the film’s validation of technology. For him, Lang “fabricates castles in the air from telephones, telegraphs, neon signs, microphones, switches, and signal lamps….The utensils of technology serve the artisan’s purpose solely, the formulas are only for decoration….The personages in this film seem to have been engaged less for espionage purposes than for the operation of the technical instruments.” (6)

It’s difficult to refute these charges of formalism and technological fetishism (the latter of which would return in force with the James Bond films). Strangest of all, the patches of the film that carry the most emotional charge, all having to do with sex or honor — the manipulation of Sonja (Gerda Maurus) by Haghi; the seduction of Matsumoto by Kitty (Lien Deyers), the ghosts of his slain emissaries returning to haunt him, his eventual hari-kari — register like subplots, detaching themselves from the main lines of action as if they were afterthoughts.

Yet it’s also possible to argue that Lang’s emphasis on process over everything else is precisely what remains so fascinating and compelling about Spione. He strips the spy-thriller form down to its basics and reveals in the course of this purification the underlying mechanisms of that form. And he does this above all by making his plot as abstractly generic as possible — set in an unnamed country where an unmotivated villain assuming various disguises and enlisting many spies and emissaries, mainly through coercion, contrives to steal unspecified government documents and intercept an equally undescribed treaty. Even when Lang resorts to oblique social commentary — such as the fat capitalist saved from a fatal bullet by the wad of fat bills in his pocket — the jokey concept doesn’t rebound on the villain, who supposedly runs a bank (and whose only comment about his wealth is, “I’m richer than Ford, even though I pay less taxes.”) And Kracauer’s implicit charge that the forces of good and the forces of evil are virtually made equivalent seems borne out by many of the formal rhymes, e.g., No. 326’s face lathered with shaving cream echoed by Haghi’s clown make-up.


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There are two key recurring shots in the film that function as narrative pivots while also providing both questions and answers regarding the plot’s machinations, thereby pretending to explain the inexplicable. (Spione’s opening intertitle: “Throughout the world…strange events transpire.”) One of these shots is a close-up of Haghi’s face, sometimes wreathed in cigarette smoke; the other is a network of criss-crossing iron stairways and four tiered balconies that are apparently just outside his secret headquarters. (This is more a felt proximity than a demonstrated one — implied by the editing and the absence of any exterior shots as people proceed from these stairways and balconies into Haghi’s office.) Each of these images simultaneously explains everything and explains nothing, functioning repeatedly as a spatial and narrative transition between blocks of material that otherwise seem disconnected. In this respect they suggest a kind of narrative-based recasting of the famous Kuleshov experiment whereby unrelated shots create a fusion of meaning through the viewer’s imagination.

The close-up of Haghi first appears immediately after a government official asks himself, “Almighty God — what power is at play here?” It’s a rhetorical question, asked when a messenger has just dashed into his office to disclose the identity of a culprit involved in the theft of state documents and the assassination of a Trade Minister — events that are breathlessly depicted in the film’s opening moments — and is shot through the glass window pane by an unseen assailant before he can pronounce the name. And the rhetorical answer to this rhetorical question is Haghi’s close-up, concluding the film’s prologue with the equivalent of another question mark.

The second key image occurs much later, after we’ve been introduced to N. 326 — a government spy disguised as a tramp who’s summoned to his chief’s office, where he promptly exposes the miniature hidden camera of a counterspy posing as an office assistant (the first of many James Bond gadgets avant la lettre). Then we return to Haghi, this time seen from behind at his desk, being presented by lackeys with photographs of No. 326 in his tramp attire taken by another miniature camera. When we return to Haghi again a little later (introduced by the intertitle, “The Enemy…”), smoking a cigarette and barking out orders over an intercom, another intertitle introduces us to “His Headquarters,” which proves to be a prison, and three shots later we have our first glimpse of the crisscrossing stairways and balconies — a complex of pathways made even more intricate by the people walking up, down, or across each of them. Like the animated shot in the prologue of radio towers sending out widening signals, this image forms a kind of dialectic with the glowering close-ups of Haghi by offering multidirectional movements instead of stasis, suggesting the tentacles of an octopus.

The irrationality of this image is that it’s a prison block yet we’re also informed that Haghi runs a bank bearing his name and that his office is inside that bank. The dreamlike logic according to which Haghi works inside both a prison and a bank, doubling as prison warden and bank president, is only compounded by the fact that Haghi sits in a wheelchair (shades of Dr. Strangelove) and is attended to by an elderly nurse, suggesting that he may even be a patient inside a hospital — a hospital that he also runs.

Like Mabuse before him, Haghi can rule and manipulate the diverse sectors of society without leaving home. But in this case the home itself becomes an image of that society — an enclosed city that evokes the one in Metropolis, full of hidden, windowless chambers that might be prison cells, bank vaults, and/or hospital rooms. And, again as in Metropolis, Freud plays a more significant role than Marx in determining the schema of this bizarre layout — despite the fact that Haghi is deliberately made up to resemble Lenin.

Or is it Trotsky? As with Lang’s subsequent confusion of Spione with Mabuse, film historian Nicole Brenez has teased out another layer of ambiguity regarding Lang’s subsequent memories: “In Spione, Rudolf Klein-Rogge reproduces trait for trait the face of Lenin. But this figural candour engenders critical confusion since, as an exegete of his own work, Lang effects a splendid referential transference thanks to which Lenin (political boss) serves to mask Trotsky (military boss): `the invented super-spy Haghi was played by the actor Klein-Rogge in the make-up of the political master-mind Trotsky.’” (7) All of which is anticipated by the main villain in Feuillade’s Tih Minh concentrating the serial’s anti-German and anti-Bolshevik sentiments in a single figure — a German spy suggestively named Marx. For Lang and the reflexes of his own audience almost a decade later, conflating Lenin and Trotsky in the figure of Haghi seems to serve pretty much the same function.

Yet the fact that communism plays no role at all in either film apart from vaguely signifying a generic evil threat is equally relevant, no doubt helping to account for Arnheim and Kracauer’s scorn for Spione. Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the fact that this is Lang’s most politically incorrect film as well as his sexiest and most sensual, perhaps for related reasons.

In what other thriller does the act of taking a hot bath, alone, seem more monumental? The elliptical editing here and at the very beginning of the film invites the viewer’s imagination to take flight, and so do countless dreamlike images, many bordering on narrative illogic or a sense of the uncanny: the disembodied hands of Haghi’s nurse entering the frame (a motif that recurs with other characters); Haghi glimpsed at a nightclub just after Sonja has been slipped a message summoning her to his office; her dismantled house, gradually exposed under the glare of No. 326’s flashlight; Haghi offering her a glass of champagne with a string of pearls wrapped around it; Matsumoto’s hallucinatory vision of his three dead agents returning with their three fake treaties amidst falling sheets of paper and a superimposed Japanese flag; Haghi/Nemo’s strange clown act utilizing musical notes and instruments. Yet thanks to the film’s centripetal structure, these and other details take their place with  the masterful suspense sequences in the train and bank as functional parts of an internal design no less encompassing than Haghi’s. Like those recurring shots of his face and his passageways, which function as both deceptive tokens of meaning and agents of transition, these uncanny images lock the machinations of an incoherent, malevolent universe precisely into position.

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1. Thomas Elsaesser, Metropolis, London: BFI Publishing, 2000. 39-40.

2. Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg, “Interview with Fritz Lang,” 1969, reprinted in Fritz Lang Interviews, edited by Barry Keith Grant, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 103.

3. Jean Domarchi and Jacques Rivette, “Interview with Fritz Lang,” 1959, reprinted in Fritz Lang Interviews, op. cit., 16-17 (translation modified).

4. Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, London: BFI Publishing, 2000, 117-118.

5. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1959, 150.

6. Rudolf Arnheim, Film Essays and Criticism, translated by Brenda Benthein, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997, 134-135.

7. Nicole Brenez, De la figure en général et du corps en particulier : L’invention figurative au cinéma, Paris/Bruxelles : DeBoeck Université, 1998, 120. (My translation. The quote from Lang is taken from Lotte H. Eisner, Fritz Lang, London: Secker & Warburg, 1976, 96.)

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