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Machinations of an Incoherent, Malevolent Universe
Fritz Lang’s Spione

Adrian Martin

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A woman’s arm extends languidly across the bottom half of the frame, her hand casually holding a cigarette. Her other arm, more fantastically bejewelled than the first, dips slowly into the top half of the frame; this hand holds a small, black revolver, which she aims and squeezes. A group of five spies line a wall: the cluster of three on the left of frame comprises a large, bald man with a long scarf; a nervous, young woman with a stylish haircut; and a tall, thin, spidery gentleman who resembles Nosferatu. Two guards in dark costume flank a door; in the centre of the image, the large, impressive metallic gun of one of them hangs muzzle down. A view into an orchestra pit: two policemen in fine, sleek coats stand absolutely still, aiming their weapons up at the performer on stage. An unusual Colonel with mad eyes and a long, upwardly twirling moustache takes a delighted, greedy puff of his pathetic little cigarette before proceeding with some shady work.

How are we to categorise and construe these mesmerising, extraordinary images, with their acute sense of drop-dead-cool design and mood-setting immediacy – these images seemingly abstracted from any specific plot yet at the same time offering the very essence of an entire twentieth century of cinematic fiction, with their tensely frozen, poster-style tableaux of sex, sin, intrigue and action?




1. Translated in Paul Hammond (ed.), The Shadow and Its Shadow (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000), p. 195.

2. Quoted in Jean-Claude Carrière, The Secret Language of Film (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 212.


3. Noël Burch, ‘Fritz Lang: German Period’ in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980), p. 591.





4. Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (London: BFI, 2000), p. 473.



5. Lang interviewed by Jean Domarchi and Jacques Rivette, reprinted in Fritz Lang Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003), pp. 16-17; originally appeared in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 99 (September 1959), p. 1.


6. Siegried Kracauer, Theory of Film (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), pp. 275-276.


7. Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘Inside the Vault’, booklet in DVD of Spione (UK: Eureka/Masters of Cinema, no. 9, 2005), p. 18.


Today it is easy to endow Fritz Lang’s Spione (1928) with an aura of the avant-garde; its images recall the contemporaneous reveries about cinema voiced by the Surrealists, such as the French poet Robert Desnos in his 1923 text ‘Eroticism’: ‘ ... the apparition of a dancer’s shoulder, an adventurer’s proconsular neck, a white hand, long and slim, "sliding towards a letter" or a revolver, eyes above all else ...’) (1) – or by the exponents of photogénie, such as the filmmaker and theorist Jean Epstein in his 1926 book The Cinematograph Viewed From Etna: ‘Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was no American drama without the revolver scene, the weapon being slowly withdrawn from a half-open drawer. I loved that revolver. It appeared as the symbol of a thousand possibilities’. (2) Over forty years later, the materialist criticism of Noël Burch came to a similar point of dreamy reverie, discovering in Spione ‘a pyrotechnic poetry, often obscure, often built on elements superfluous to the narrative, and the languorous poetry of "undue" gestures, of "excessively" long shots, a poetry of time beguiled’. (3)

Or is Spione better thought of within the context of the sensation film – a specifically German genre predicated on shocks, thrills, eye-popping incidents and details – and Lang’s effort to ‘exploit the immediacy of the mass medium of film at the same time as refining its visual language’, as Tom Gunning has proposed? Ultimately, we should not have to choose between the prose of Spione – its driven, breathless, sensational content involving sabotage, surveillance and disguise – and its heady poetry, since the two are, at every stage, inextricable. What is undeniable, however, is that the film suffers still from the taint of its lurid, zany, Pop genre. As Gunning puts it: ‘Lang at both ends of his career (and indeed throughout his Hollywood period) was accused of creating kitsch rather than art, condemned for being the popular entertainer he always wanted to be’. (4)

Spione is among the least analysed and least celebrated of Lang’s great films. This has much to do with its genial resistance to sociological commentary or thematic interpretation – not to mention its sheer enjoyability. Although it is as precisely and intricately shaped as Lang’s best work, it strikes many as superficial, glamorous, charming but ultimately vacuous entertainment. Lang himself offered an accurate description of its mode: ‘There is only pure sensation, character development doesn’t exist.’ (5) But it is, unfortunately, only too easy to translate Lang’s neutral understanding of the components of a sensation film into an evaluative statement of the kind offered by Siegfried Kracauer, who was among the first commentators to express a certain analytical helplessness in the face of Spione’s busy frivolity, or what he termed its ‘strange futility’: ‘One party spies on the other, and soon you forget who is who and why. As an end in itself, the endless process is meaningless.’ (6)

The challenge, when writing about Spione, is to honour both its formal brilliance and its heightened picture of a social realm (a realm in which, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has proposed, the ‘machinations of an incoherent, malevolent universe’ are locked ‘precisely into position’) (7) – in other words, both its modernism and its modernity – without losing sight of its status as popular art. Because it seems to me that one key to Lang’s cinema is the intensity, the enthusiasm – the seriousness, in a sense – which he brought to the story material, stereotypes, clichés and sensational devices of pop (and pulp) traditions, an intensity that has little to with what is perceived today as a camp sensibility.














8. Rosenbaum, ‘Spione, Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 508 (May 1976), p. 112.



9. Alain Masson, ‘Les espions: Comment comprendre?’, Positif, no. 256 (June 1982), p. 66.



All prints of Spione, from the old, brutally reduced American edit to the latest DVD reconstruction from Eureka/Masters of Cinema, open with more or less similar versions of a furious montage of interconnected gestures. Gloved hands stealthily crack open a safe. The hands place documents into an envelope and seal it. A man on a motorcycle, shot from below and surrounded by darkness, makes motions that indicate furious speed. Radio towers emit animated broadcast signals. Headlines and news reports declaring the theft flash on screen. An elderly official rides in an open car, carrying a satchel; a motorcycle rider approaches from behind, shoots the official and, in the next shot, seizes the satchel. A man talks hurriedly into a telephone. Another news headline: more theft, plus a murder. After a brief flurry of shots conveying the almost burlesque consternation about the missing documents at the Ministry of War, a man pulls up in a car, runs into a government office, and begins to reveal to his superior the identity of a villain. A bullet passes through the window behind the man; he crumples up and dies. The superior is left fulminating and perplexed.

This montage flows marvellously and vividly. Yet, what sort of sense does it really make? How much time has passed between shots, what are the precise locations of the action and their relation to one another – and who exactly are all these people? How do we know for certain that the hands at the safe are the same as the hands over the envelope, and that these hands belong to the motorcyclist? Already in 1928, Lang was counting upon his audience’s capacity to assume, deduce and associate on the basis of a swift sequence of often enigmatic and disembodied gestures – a sketched or notional sequence of actions and sensations assembled and cohering as much as a result of the spectator’s reactions (at various conscious, half-conscious and unconscious levels) as of anything in the film itself. In a striking formulation that captures this dream-like interlocking of text and spectator, Rosenbaum describes the film as structured upon ‘irrational continuities’. (8)

At the centre of Spione’s achievement – and one of the reasons it is a milestone in Lang’s storytelling and stylistic evolution – is its concentration on the individual shot as a cinematic unit. The images of the opening montage, like so many in the story to follow, contain an element of mystery, enigma, intrigue. ‘Each image of Spione has an object, almost always simple’, observes Alain Masson. ‘The objective of the shot is to determine this object’. (9)

Few films work the frame with as much tenacity, cleverness or rigour as Spione. The shots are mostly static (lending enormous force and emphasis to the rare camera movements, such as into Matsumoto [Lupu Pick] as he realises that his documents have been stolen by Kitty [Lien Deyers]), very precisely framed, and often resemble what came to be known within filmmaking practice as inserts – close shots of objects, details, and most especially hands (a major Langian motif). There are literally hundreds of such images in the film: a vase containing a hidden microphone (revealed in a superimposition); a wine glass with pearls strung around its base; a miniature camera held between two fingers; photographs and fingerprints, annotated and archived; hands holding letters, pens, guns ... The more precisely, tightly framed the shot – and the more isolated or fragmented its objects – the greater its inherent, dramatic tension, since we are made acutely aware of off-screen space, its mysteries and possibilities.



To suit this new conception of the shot, Lang develops a very particular mode of mise en scène that will become subtly integrated into his style over the following thirty-two years of filmmaking. Like F.W. Murnau, Lang gives every major performer a specific way of inhabiting the static frame, of possessing or being possessed by a space, absorbing or being absorbed by it. Spione’s astonishing and extravagant histrionics – too easily dismissed by modern viewers as ‘silent movie’, pantomimic convention, and almost never addressed directly by commentators – can be appreciated on this virtuosic level. Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Haghi, for instance, dominates the frame with slow menace, filling the empty expanse around his wheelchair and desk by spreading his hands, leaning forward, or (most often) simply by taking his good time to roll up a cigarette, have it lit by his off-screen assistant, and then take a puff and fill the air, extravagantly, with the resulting clouds of smoke.

In fact, every character in this drama has his or her own, particular, highly theatrical way of smoking: Sonja (Gerda Maurus) draws and exhales aggressively, billowing long trails over Haghi; 326 (Willy Fritsch) in tramp guise flicks his cheap butts on the street; Matsumoto sports thin, refined cigarettes (the sign of his fatal attraction to Kitty is that he stops smoking for a second); Jellusic (Fritz Rasp), before entering the post office, puts his cigar aside, thinks twice and then takes another puff, and finally retrieves it again on his way out.

Environments are designed to mirror the ways in which the actors’ movements and gesticulations organise and direct space. Sonja’s apartment furnishings (vases, icons, tea set, fabrics) are as florid, expansive and romantic as her body language. Matsumoto’s pad is all sliding panels and discrete spaces. Haghi’s sudden, brisk, intricate gestures – crumpling and hurling a poster away in an instant, tearing up fake treaties, communicating in rapid sign-language to his nurse – are reflected in the design of his office, which centres on the desk with its movable parts dedicated to communication channels: flashed teletype messages and newspapers or transcripts shot through tubes.

The dynamic relation between shot découpage, set design and performance styles is clinched in moments of high conflict: both Sonja and Kitty find themselves hurled by the force of fear or anger into the blank, featureless corners of rooms, hugging the walls like caged animals, bracing themselves to spring into the next round of the fight of power or seduction (in her first scene with 326, Sonja makes her decisive move by pretending to faint). The summit of this dynamism is the spectacle of Sonja tied to a chair in Haghi’s office, arching and wriggling wildly as she tries to burst from confinement.


The narrative and cinematic form of Spione moves in concentric circles, outwards from its smallest units. The individual shot poses a question that a full scene can begin to answer. Larger mysteries can only be illuminated across larger units of the narrative – like the sequence (alternating several scenes), or the segment (tying up several sequences). Off-spaces, unseen or implied events, are generated on the edge of shots (like Jellusic’s suicide), and on the boundaries between scenes (like the murder of Matsumoto’s couriers). Small-scale patterns are mirrored precisely by larger ones: as Masson notes, the first shot of opening (of a safe) is answered by a subsequent shot of closing (of an envelope); similarly, the way the first scene ends – with a body crumpling to the floor and a question hanging in the air – is answered by the final scene in which another body crumples, but narrative closure is total.

The grand enigma animating this formal progression is always on the order of ‘who is behind this?’ – for to strive to intuit the identity behind a veiled gesture or covert action is ultimately to go in search of the ultimate power behind the scenes, the originating source that provokes all these manifest effects and causes them to cohere. In Lang’s political action-melodramas, this source, this point from which power is lethally exercised, is one man, a puppet-master like Mabuse who, through fabulous wizardry, sees and hears all, knows all, and pulls all the strings. Haghi, the all-powerful, god-like figure of evil is a living paradox: in himself, this apparently crippled character at the centre of a catacomb does almost nothing, scarcely moves or acts at all; rather he reads, gathers data, ponders, stages appearances and gives orders. He can easily be seen as the enunciator or stand-in for Lang, precisely because of the paradox he embodies and articulates: the story, the action, is (for the most part) not where he is, but in some other place where he causes it to happen, to flower. Thus, he exists on the blurry edge between diegetic and non-diegetic realms, a potentiality condensed in the famous close-up of Haghi staring into the camera and having a smoke.

Advancing, stitching itself together from shot to scene, scene to sequence, sequence to segment, segment to large-scale part, and finally from the part to the film as a total structure: what matter in this global or ensemble form of articulations, correspondences and connections are precisely the passages, the relations in time and space that allow movement, transition, dynamic exchange. There are three, tightly interwoven principles of passage in Spione:

1. Circulation. Bodies, objects and messages cross a variegated territory: they pass along corridors, through doorways and into rooms; are transported across borders; zip along wires or tubes. In much of his work, Lang was meticulous, even manic, about charting the stages of such physical circulation (an obsession he shares with Truffaut and Kieslowski). One needs to see the longest (although still not complete) version of Spione on DVD to appreciate how this formal principle works. In the sequence of 326’s arrival at the police station, for instance, the hero needs to pass through several offices and doors, and three intermediary bureaucrats, before getting to Jason (Craighall Sherry). The scene at the Olympic Hotel contains much activity between rooms and in the corridors. Even in the blazing opening montage, the frantic search for documents occurs between anonymous characters in several rooms, rushing about to report to each other. Circulation extends to the tiniest, most secret spaces: like Rivette, Lang takes us into all the hidden storage places of his characters, such as the compartment where Jason keeps his ‘Book of the Dead’.



10. Nicole Brenez, De la figure en général et du corps en particulier. L'invention figurative au cinéma (Bruxelles: De Boeck, 1998), p. 127.


2. Communication. Whatever links two spaces while obviating the need to cross physically the territory between them counts as communication in Lang. Where circulation offers an ‘old world’ style of delivering items to their destination, modern communications technology fired Lang’s imagination of instant, new world, virtual connections between disparate spaces. The mundane telephone is ubiquitous in his work; Haghi makes fiendish use of it, but also has a battery of other telecommunications devices at his disposal. Transmission brings with it the ever-present possibility of unpredictable breakdown or, more sinisterly, interception – halting a message or re-routing it, as often happens in this story. As Nicole Brenez notes: ‘Transmission and interception are the two major and complementary figures of Langian narrative: every message can be made the object of a fatal interception, every message is a death sentence’. (10)

This formal principle of communication as space-bridging also occurs on human and architectural levels – such as when Sonja spies 326 through the windows of their adjacent trains; or when Sonja and her corpulent accomplice gaze through a parted curtain at 326 scampering like Spiderman down into his room at the Olympic; or when 326 and Matsumoto acknowledge each other across the doorways (doors are a major motif of the film). Such personal avenues of communication can be one-way or two-way; and, like the technological modes, they are prone to sudden cancellation through re-alignment (the trains depart in different directions) or cancellation of vision (Matsumoto’s slow withdrawal from the tempting Kitty signalled by his slow sliding of the door, blotting out her image).




3. Permeation. This principle refers to the moment when spaces become porous, when different locations collapse or bleed into each other. The bullet that kills the messenger in the opening montage is a deadly and extreme form of communication, but it also marks the breaching of a border – signalled by the indelible image of a hole in the window. The high, climactic moment of dramatic permeation comes when two objects collide (like the two train carriages), or when a hole (created by enormous force of some sort, such as an explosion) unexpectedly reveals the proximity of two spaces, now made into one (this occurs in Spione when a grenade allows the reunion of 326 and Sonja – and also spreads lethal gas from Haghi’s public vault to his private chambers, forcing his workers out of manholes and into the street).

Lang is sometimes regarded as an Olympian artist whose chief emblem of style was the overhead shot. In fact, he is more interested in tracing or mapping his fictional labyrinths at ground level, step by step, through intricate and multi-directional movement. Hence the force – and also the humour – of these principles of circulation, communication and permeation, which build up the texture of a paranoiac, treacherous, modern world through a busy, micro-network of journeys, exchanges and surprises. There are no secrets in this globalised space, only inexorable rides to the end of a train line, the inside of a hidden compartment, or the radio transmitter placed within the stage microphone of a ritzy restaurant.

‘One party spies on the other, and soon you forget who is who and why’. Kracauer was right: everyone here is a spy. The process reaches zany extremes. For every message that Haghi or Jason receive, there appears to be a physical agent lurking somewhere, shadowing someone: in the vehicle cruising alongside the car of Lady Leslane (Hertha von Walther), or on train platforms. Spies spy on other spies and re-route their messages: such is the fate that swallows up Matsumoto, even though he himself is adept at sending out decoy transmissions. In this world of scampering messengers, instant deliveries and fatal interceptions, everything that happens is set to become news, mediated at a moment’s notice for the sake of somebody’s malevolent or benevolent ubiquity.


Yet the world of Spione is not only malevolent and paranoiac; it is also spiritual and romantic. One needs to take absolutely seriously and genuinely – that is, unironically – the love affair at the heart of the film between 326 and Sonja. Like Cecil B. De Mille’s work of the period, Spione carefully, schizophrenically balances its lurid sensationalism with a no less intense dream of purity, transcendence and redemption granted by love. A key scene, in this regard, is the chaste night of hand-holding rapture between the lovers. There is more than a touch of Borzage in Lang, and Spione’s quality of other-worldly romanticism (trembling, it is true, with the force of earthly sublimation) is also created by its intricate, formal interlacing. In this regard, Spione is an early but already daring model of the interlocking large and small-scale systems of alternation that (as Raymond Bellour first analysed) create the couple as an entity in classical cinema. Whenever 326 and Sonja are separate, editing structures and plot contrivances serve to unite them across space, across minds: in separate cabs, similarly framed in the back seat, they both agonise; 326 in the bar is intercut with Sonja poring over his photo; and, most spectacularly, their train rides are juxtaposed, 326 knocked by his medallion and Sonja awoken by an apprehension of the crash, as if each is sending the other messages.


11. Masson, p. 66.






‘In this narrative, identity exists only in its transformations.’ (11) The identities of not just characters but objects, rooms, spaces – entities and elements of every sort – are subject to this generalised, compulsive rule of transformation in Spione. Nothing stays the same, or has only a single face. In the Hotel Olympic, 326 passes from a tramp to a lathered-up gentleman in a dressing gown, and finally to an elegant, handsome hero (the last two faces revealed, like Matsumoto, by the dramatic opening of doors). Haghi has his demonic hidden self, then – after being groomed and passing into another, conventionally upholstered office – his public, banker self; later he will be 716, the clown Nemo and the semi-naked Haghi who sits before a dressing room mirror. Kitty transforms from vixen to waif and back again. Even the silent, ever-vigilant nurse, it seems, was revealed (in footage that no longer exists) to be someone unexpected – Haghi’s mother!







12. Rosenbaum, ‘Spione’, p. 112.

  A boxing ring, viewed in an overhead shot, turns out – after a disorienting cutaway to an orchestra conductor waving his baton – to be also a nightclub, as dancers multiply wildly and fill the frame. Sonja’s lodgings are changed, while she is out for the night, from a plushly, intimately furnished apartment to a bare space lit starkly by 326’s darting torch. Objects are made strange by the transformations visited upon them (a black handprint on a chair; a bullet lodged within a pocket book), or they introduce disquiet and surprise into mundane tableaux (a mini-camera under a coat lapel). Some traces are made to vanish into thin air, like Jellusic’s invisible ink.

Disguises, transformations, multiples, a sketch of modern power networks whose ubiquitous reach borders on absurdity ... We are not far here from the highwire sensations and baroque convolutions offered today by the Mission: Impossible films. Rosenbaum is right to locate Spione within a tradition stretching from Louis Feuillade in the silent era through to ‘master plotters, from Hitchcock and Graham Greene to Rivette, Straub and Thomas Pynchon’. (12) But it also has a crucial place within the history of the action film, the least critically attended to of all major genres. Like the first two Mabuse instalments, Spione is a great action film – and a masterpiece of popular art.

This is an excerpt from a chapter in a forthcoming anthology on Fritz Lang edited by Douglas Pye for Cameron & Hollis Books. It first appeared, in Spanish translation, in Miradas de cine (January 2006).


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