Fritz Lang’s post-Metropolis rejoinder to his own maximalist desecration of modern German society is a fanciful, feisty kaleidoscope of Berlin bedlam and Weimar-era hedonism untethered from the astringent social critique of Lang’s Mabuse pictures. While Rudolf Klein-Rogge plays a monomaniacal mastermind of pandemonium here, as he did in Dr. Mabuse from six years before, this erratic, erotic, orgiastic display of Lang’s bravura skill shoeshines German Expressionism with pumped-up pulp serial and rubs itself down in a torrid love affair with presentation itself. If the Mabuse films secretly smuggled in a critique of German society, Spies is, relatively speaking, more of a love letter to the temporal high of monomania, even if it is a note written with a poisoned pen. Certainly, Lang was well aware of the horrors of unfettered ’20s capitalism in Berlin and the imminent rise of the Nazi party – three years later, he would direct the ultimate cinematic statement on Nazism without even mentioning the word. But, just this once, and until its startling and corrosive finale, Lang let his monocle down in one of the ultimate cinematic odes to filmmaking as toybox more than toolbox.
We all know the stereotype of Lang as the godfather of Teutonic cinema, a forebear to the spick-and-span genre flicks of the mid-century that owe something in their gut to the get-it-over-with spirit of German efficiency. Lang was a tyrannical director, yes (the finale of Spies makes that stone-cold clear), and the crisp slants of his angular cinematography do inflect a certain taut precision to his mise-en-scene. But crystalline efficiency alone leaves the Lang tale incomplete. Awash in presentational hyperbole, Spies viciously counterposes the augmented clarity of Soviet montage and chokingly rectangular mise-en-scene with bewilderingly passionate, even reckless filmmaking. This combination of screw-tight and screw-loose is, for most of the trip, Lang’s ultimate tip of the hat to the director as orchestrator, ringmaster, and carnival barker. Expressionism is certainly afoot, but the orient is less distended nightmare than drug-induced nightlife hemorrhaging off the screen.
Take the infamous opening montage of rat-a-tat criminal activity, as demonic as anything in Mabuse but more diabolical because it plays the off-kilter material with an askew wink. Characters run to escape their own paranoia as if crossing hot coals. Prowling hands confront us from every corner of the screen, proposing a masked world out of view just threatening (dancing) to steal something in your view like a magic trick gone awry. The Germanic silent acting style is overdone to histrionic effect as hair and hands interact with the violent hysterics often played straight in the era. And at the end of it all, a bewildered bureaucrat dares question: “What power is this?”, looking at the audience in a self-reflexive spurt of helplessness. In a moment mirroring the original Dr. Mabuse, Klein-Rogge’s face retorts, sabotaging and invading the screen in a cut-to-black, his face superimposed over a now empty world. His response? A bold, Kapitalized “I!” in the film’s best bold-faced German font.
Tellingly, in Mabuse, Klein-Rogge’s face was imposed on the world of the diegetic film, pulling the strings of the German public on a mass-scale economic attack that prefigured the stock market crash in America and post-figured the horrendous economic conditions of the non-wealthy in Germany during the ’20s. In Spies, Klein-Rogge’s address – not backed by any diegetic locale – more explicitly interrogates us, not the film’s characters; he is not merely omniscient over the diegesis of the film, but the material film itself. He, like Lang, is in control, and the cheeky daredevil’s vivid, garish, Machiavellian strokes enjoins us not only to cower in fear but to gaze on in awe and wonderment. Of course, Der Spieler – literally, “the gambler” – was already appended to the original Mabuse film, but other, more idiomatic meanings of the word spieler could be the title of this film: swindler, voluble speaker, game-player. All are the stock and trade of Haghi (the mysterious character played by Klein-Rogge). But the title of the film in this case refers mostly to Lang, a spy behind the camera. He’s playing with us, and he wants us to play with him.
Mounting an argument for the film’s precision, one can fixate on the crack of the opening montage of edits, perfectly calibrated for maximum impact. But they are the opposite of mechanical and cadenced. Instead, they run off the screen, almost folding time in on itself in a tympanic, jazzlike flurry of events that register almost subcutaneously amidst the tumult, less a reckless, frazzled public chaos than a hallucinogenic discotheque rave-up. Naturally, the region between the two is supple, and Spies is precipiced at the vertiginous intersection of madcap kinesis and mind-melting, psychotic conflagration.
Until, of course, it tips over into the latter. As all of Lang’s silent films at least subfuscously do, Spies provides a presentiment of the after-party hangover, with Lang’s all-seeing, downward-casted camera eventually threatening a full-scale assault on a populace obsessed with string-pulling sideshows. The smirks curdle into a sneering devilishness as the flamboyant imagination of Haghi is counterposed with the frail stasis of his corporeal form: a wheelchair bound banker living in sterile halls. It’s a brittle reminder of the tentative grasp all cinema holds over the audience and the conditionality of every curtain ceremoniously placed in front of us both to provisionally enforce the mystique of the cinema performance as well as to mask the fleshy, passive humanity of the manipulator. A manipulator who creates his or her own fictional, performative world and animates it through sheer will-power and obsession, to control that which he otherwise cannot because his agency is compromised without the fiction and performance of other identities. Without the specific political import of Dr. Mabuse, Spies acclimatizes itself to more timeless questions of the fluidity of identity as both active construction of and passive mask for the self.
The naughtiness of Spies is the relatively nocturnal nature of its self-sabotage; while Der Spieler imagines Mabuse as a corrupted snare around a corruptible populace, Haghi’s fallibility is much more consternated, his humanity much more torridly entwined in the carnivalesque nature of his swirling performative identity. When he’s caught, he adopts a maelstrom of alternate roles simply to survive, ensnared in the whirlygust of a fluid self that forces him to constantly reconstruct his identity simply to walk the earth. Throughout, the disembodied nature of his weapons – almost abstracted machines – construe technology, entertainment, manipulation, and power, and in doing so daringly, dauntingly circumscribe the seemingly limitless virility of the filmmaker and the artist in the process.
As a parable about an entertainer who fascinates the public eye with lightning and thunder eventually reduced to the ashes and smithereens of his own making, the film eventually concludes with a fatal blow to the nature of directorial clout, and power altogether, years before Alfred Hitchcock or Michael Powell were able to expose this sort of ambidextrous reading of camera-operator as commander and coward in the same costume. If a film like Peeping Tom was verboten in 1960, Lang was already testing the mettle of the social hall-of-mirrors that was German society in 1928, and art more generally, both gallivanting around with false , external images of the self rather than finding a crystalline core to wrap them around. The final costume his Haghi wears is the ultimate ego-blow to a self-centered society (in Lang’s view), and to the egomaniac directors who perpetuate a society constructed around images at the expense of bodies. In the end, the artist welcomes the applause of his most convincing performance yet, only to be hoisted on his own art.