"Spies" in One Shot

Fritz Lang's 1928 espionage epic encapsulated in a single shot.
Ryan Swen
One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie. Fritz Lang's Spies (1928) is showing May 19 - June 18, 2020 in the United States in the series Weimar Cinema.
Fritz Lang’s remarkable oeuvre in the silent era may be best known for the special effect extravagances of Metropolis, but his style was even more concentrated when working with the bare essentials of the medium, all the better to use his skills at simple artifice and suggestion. Case in point: the opening sequence of Spies, which uses only a few distinguishable settings, some animated text and drawings, and frenzied faces to conjure the film’s empire of crime. It is a realm of blanks and façades, pitting an espionage ring, spearheaded by the inscrutable spymaster Haghi, against the state that stands for luxury and control, embodied by a man with the nom de guerre Agent 326. Yet none of these people appear in the sequence, where the movement of anonymous figures and information is paramount, no trappings of individuality required. This expression of motion is taken to its limit with the film’s third shot, which serves simultaneously as a moment of clarity, after the first two images’ sole focus on hands, and as a further obfuscation. Few other shots in film history are so thrillingly artificial, as Lang shoots at an impossibly low angle from below where the wheel would meet the pavement. Due to the camera’s physical presence, the viewer knows that there’s no conceivable way the motorcycle is actually moving, but the deception of this image announces itself so readily that it becomes enthralling. And the rushing wind, steam, and fog; the bug-eyed goggles; above all the wild grin on the criminal, who appears in no other scene but whose pure malice lingers in the mind: like everything in Spies, the actual thing being stolen is of no importance, the act is all that matters. With these elements, Lang distills the dark heart, the mad glee of his visions.

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