(director/writer/editor: Fritz Lang; screenwriter: from the novel Spione by Thea von Harbou/Thea von Harbou; cinematographer: Fritz Arno Wagner; music: Werner R. Heymann; cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Haghi), Gerda Maurus (Sonya Baranilkowa), Willy Fritsch (No. 326, Det. Donald Tremaine), Lupu Pick (Dr. Matsumoto), Lien Deyers (Kitty), Louis Ralph (Hans Morriera), Craighall Sherry (Burton Jason/Miles Jason), Hertha Von Walther (Lady Leslane), Fritz Rasp (Colonel Jellusic); Runtime: 143; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Erich Pommer/Fritz Lang; Kino DVD; 1928-silent-Germany)
“The spy thriller gets one’s adrenaline going because of its breakneck pace and bizarre feel.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An overlooked gem from Fritz Lang (“While the City Sleeps”/”Metropolis”/”Scarlet Street”). This thriller revamps Lang’s three Dr. Mabuse films that also tell about a criminal mastermind. It’s co-scripted by Lang with his second wife Thea von Harbou, who bases it on her novel Spione. Thea would later desert Lang for the Nazis when he emigrated to America. The film works so well because Lang effectively mixes pulp fiction with expressionism, loads it up with great action-packed sequences, alluring sex, the use of ellipsis, incredible imagery, and assorted gadgetry (the stylish forerunner for the James Bond films). The spy thriller gets one’s adrenaline going because of its breakneck pace and bizarre feel.
Respected and influential wheelchair-bound banker Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who bears a striking resemblance to Lenin, is in reality an evil genius spy and international criminal, someone whose actions resemble Dr. Mabuse (Klein-Rogge also played Mabuse). On the trail of the unknown spy, who is responsible for a number of assassinations on diplomats and stealing top secret documents, is ace undercover agent No. 326 (Willy Fritsch), a handsome man with many disguises from a bum to a swell. Arrested as a bum, No. 326 spots the one who arrested him taking pictures of documents in his boss’s office (the Minister of Interior) with a tiny hidden camera and exposes him. Later while at the fancy Hotel Olympic, a pretty young woman in an evening dress runs into the agent’s room and asks him to hide her because she just shot the man in the next room who made sexual advances. It turns out she’s Sonya Baranilkowa (Gerda Maurus), a defecting Russian spy forced to work for Haghi or her family will be killed and this is her ruse in meeting the government agent. Sonya is connected to the evil Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp), who sports a bold waxed mustache even though he works undercover.
The plot follows the efforts of No. 326 to prevent the theft of a treaty Germany’s Weimar Republic signed with the Japanese from leaving Germany and therefore disturbing the peace (the plot device doesn’t make sense, but that can be overlooked because the setup is so entertaining and serves the pic well). It leads to many plot twists, double crosses, a romance between the top spies (Sonya falls for No. 326 because he reminds her of her brother) and the dreadful feeling that abounds among the players that they don’t know who is friend or foe.
It constantly amazes with such startling scenes as a boxing match suddenly shifting to a ballroom dance and of a Japanese doctor (Lupu Pick) seduced by one of Haghi’s golden-haired female spies, Kitty (Lien Deyers), into giving up the valued treaty document and because he lost face commits hara-kiri. As the battle takes place among governments and the international crime syndicate, it culminates with Haghi pursued by government agents while aboard a speeding train; but he evades them as he dons a clown’s costume and stages his disappearance in a magnificent Pirandellian style (one of cinema’s truly great endings).
REVIEWED ON 11/11/2006 GRADE: A