Fritz Lang’s magnificent Spies (1928) is so obviously the precursor to the post-modern spy thriller that I can’t help but wonder why more people don’t discuss it. One of the things that is so fabulous about the film is that it rarely delves into stereotype, but that is most certainly because the now-well-known elements of the spy flick were fresh and new in 1928 and could hardly have been stereotyped at all. Yet the femme fatale, the Russian agent, the sneaky Asian spies, the fallen soldier, the cold-blooded spy ring leader, these were all familiar to 1928 audiences and could have all easily fallen into cliche, but they didn’t.
Which, to digress a bit, is why I was so put off by Donald Sosin’s score which is featured on the 2004 restoration. Every appearance of the Japanese spies — who are trying to get a treaty back to Japan before master German spy Haghi gets his hands on it — results in Sosin’s score switching to very stereotypical Asian music. When a main Japanese character dies, a gong is heard. It’s baffling.
About the same time as this restoration, Zach Galifianakis performed a now-famous joke in his stand-up act about this exact thing: “Whenever my Asian roommate walks in the door, I play [a stereotypical Asian tune]. And she says ‘Zach, why do you do that every time I come in the room?’ and I say ‘Because I don’t have a gong.'” It doesn’t make sense that Sosin would, in 2004, still use a variant of a musical stereotype that dates back to at least the 1940s, was a joke by the 1980s, and is now considered offensive.
In Spies, the beautiful, compelling, smart, sexy Gerda Maurus plays Sonja, Russian spy who works for evil mastermind Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) but falls in love with one of the good guys, No. 326 (Willy Fritsch). She gives an amazing performance here, and it doesn’t hurt that she has the most brilliant wardrobe I’ve ever seen. Gerda has shot right to the top of my pretend girlfriend list, with apologies to Joanna Pettet. Haghi wants Sonja for himself, so when he finds she’s in love with No. 326, he keeps her under lock and key while he plots to steal the Japanese treaty.
Meanwhile, No. 326 tries to find Haghi, Sonja, and the treaty by himself. This is all ridiculously exciting, and despite being over two hours long, it’s pretty fast-paced for Lang. Lang lingers; it’s just what he does. Here, though, it doesn’t bog the film down (I’m lookin’ at you, “M”), and the glorious visuals are well worth lingering on.
It’s just a few days before Giftmas and, since I was already there, I did a little shopping on the set of Spies, where I picked up:
…And now to stuff them all into my stocking.