Long thought lost, Fritz Lang’s restored original cut of Spione (released in 1928 as Spies here in the US) finally makes it to Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. Hailed as one of the the first espionage thrillers, its then-revolutionary conventions can still be seen today in the James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission: Impossible films.
The Production: 3.5/5
Spies was Fritz Lang’s follow-up to his over-budgeted and visionary masterpiece Metropolis, a film that, as hard as it is to believe, was a financial failure in its day. This was to be a scaled down production, with fewer massive sets and special effects, and that is rather true, at least compared to his previous film. Using the novel written by his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, as inspiration, Lang wrote a very complex screenplay involving Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a criminal mastermind bent on world domination who is masquerading as a bank director. He is the puppetmaster of this tale, working behind a desk of switches and knobs, allowing him to hear everything that is going on. His key spy is Sonja Baranikowa (Gerda Maurus), who uses the promise of sex to lure men into giving up government secrets. As the film opens, she has Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) wrapped around her finger as an important treaty is about to be signed between Germany and Japan. Enter Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), who we first see as a homeless bum on the streets, who cleans up nicely and is brought in to track down and discover who the mastermind is that has been turning or killing the country’s top agents. 326 meets Sonja, and it’s love at first site for both of them. This doesn’t sit well with Haghi, who decides to keep Sonja locked up in his prison until 326 is dealt with.
As I mentioned above, Spies is a very complex movie, even by today’s standards, with many more subplots and characters that, if divulged in this review, would be considered spoilers. At almost three hours, this is a very tough film for most modern audiences to view in one sitting. but much like Metropolis, Lang’s visionary style is breathtaking, and there are some jaw-dropping set pieces that hold up, even today, such as an overhead shot of a boxing match that ends with the room transitioning to a dance hall, and the big train crash that comes near the end of the movie makes one wonder how they managed to pull that off back in 1928. The film was restored in 2004 to as close to its original vision by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, using various international prints and, thus, using takes that may be different from Lang’s German cut. Since no known negative of the film survived, their work is very impressive. Kino’s presentation, though, is somewhat disappointing, in that the original German intertitles are preserved here, with English subtitles, but quite often those subtitles appear washed out because the white lettering of those subtitles do show up with either white-lettered intertitles or very bright backgrounds. Perhaps I’m being a bit nit picky, but yellow subtitles may have stood out better.
3D Rating: NA
There has been some discussion that Spies appears ever-so-slightly squished to a 1.28:1 aspect ratio on this Kino disc, whose 1080p transfer was compressed using the AVC codec. To tell you the truth, I didn’t notice, but then again, this is the only version of the film I’ve ever seen. For a film from 1928 that was restored in 2k from various sources, Spies looks pretty darn good. Contrast is excellent (or as good as can be expected), with deep blacks that don’t crush and whites that never appear to bloom. Detail is also excellent, so much so that one can see the textures in an actor’s skin in many hand close-ups. Film grain appears naturally, never becoming a distraction. As expected, however, there are some occasional light scratches and dirt that appear in the image, particularly in sequences thought to have been lost forever.
The only audio option on the disc is a Dolby Digial 2.0 stereo track, encoded at 384 kbps, featuring a piano score by Neil Brand. Fidelity is quite good for a lossy track, and fills the room quite nicely when played back in Pro-logic mode.
Special Features: 3/5
Spies: A Small Film With Lots of Action (1080p; 72:27): This is a very good documentary on the film and its restoration, in German with English subtitles.
Original German Theatrical Trailer (1080p; 5:14): Ironically, this trailer taken from the Austrian Film Museum, is presented with yellow English subtitles.
I’m a bit astonished by most of my non-movie geek friends, when I mention to them that I’m reviewing a silent film: “I don’t think I could ever watch a silent movie.” Spies would not be my first choice to introduce someone to silent cinema, but for anyone who loves or studies film, this is a must-see.