Brigitte Horney is not much remembered today, despite a long, distinguished career (films for Siodmak, Wegener, Fanck, the Nazi Baron Munchausen). Tarantino's name-checking of her during the pub games of Inglourious Basterds is probably her one star moment. Maybe the porn star name doesn't help: if Emil Jannings had been christened Emil Bigballs, he might not enjoy the status he currently has.
Horney did not confine her activities to Germany: Secret Lives is a version of the Mata Hari history/legend produced in Britain with a French director, the versatile, some would say hacky, Edmond T. Gréville, whose most famous British creation was the 1960 camp classic Beat Girl (John Barry score; Gillian Hills; Christopher Lee; Oliver Reed; striptease and juvenile delinquency). But his '30s and '40s work, mostly in France, was generally slick and stylish.
As a flagrant roman à clef treatment of the career of a celebrated seductress, Gréville's sexy spy film is markedly less satisfying than Sternberg's Dishonored (1931), which it mimics. But it's fascinating both for its stylistic flamboyance and its political leanings, and for its attempt to grow a new Dietrich on British soil (a doomed task if ever there was one, you might think: but Dietrich was always bigger in Europe than America, and even made a British movie herself, Alexander Korda's Knight without Armor, with another French director, Jacques Feyder).
It's interesting to see that as late as '37, with Hitler rampant, a British film could still take on the subject of the Great War and use it as an indictment of the perfidy of both the French and German states. Horney's spy (stop sniggering, will you!) is a pawn in the game of espionage, blackmailed into service by the French (as an alternative to being detained as an enemy alien, even though she's been raised in France since childbirth), framed by the Germans as a double agent. The high command of both countries' secret services are portrayed in cartoonishly evil terms, and the only worthwhile goal is to somehow escape their webs, which proves impossible.
Horney's plight is portrayed in nakedly Sadeian terms, so that even as she serves as the center of audience sympathy, her suffering is delivered as the film's primary source of entertainment. When she escapes from prison, it has to be during a torrential thunderstorm, just to lay on the misery more thickly, and there has to be a lecherous guard to apprehend her, partly so the film can show her resourcefulness in outsmarting and eluding him, but partly to play the old D.W. Griffith game of innocence imperiled.
When our heroine takes on the mantel of spy, the film is suddenly awash in soft-focus high fashion and opulence, revealed as a translucent covering for the moral compromise, guilt and prostitution at the heart of Horney's spycraft. Ridiculously, the Germans are well aware that she's a spy, but can't seem to stop their senior diplomats tumbling into bed with her and spilling the, er, beans, after which of course they have to be shot.
The film's high style includes lots of languid lounging in gowns (by "Jane of Paris"), as one would expect, but also some rather daring snappy montage, including a riot in a baker's which becomes a rapid-fire assemblage of snarling faces and close-up property damage. The sudden speed changes become one of Gréville's regular tricks to keep us awake (Sternberg favored somnolent consistency, as with his decision to have the cast of Shanghai Express deliver their dialogue in time with the rhythm of the train).
Horney herself (daughter of neo-Freudian analyst Karen Horney, and if that surname is amusing on an actress it's absolutely hilarious on a shrink) is exotic and effective. Unlike Marlene, her air of Persian cat sleepiness comes without a coiled, inner tension, so she doesn't achieve that intriguing contrast that distinguishes the more famous star. (Richard Burton, trying to figure out what made Clint Eastwood's lackadaisical manner so fascinating, diagnosed his appeal with the phrase "dynamic lethargy." Dietrich is the other embodiment of this technique: had the two ever co-starred, the screen would have been ablaze with indolence.) The plot's treatment of her as a Von Trieresque kitten to be tortured may not play to her exotic strengths, but the lustrous cinematography of Otto Heller (Peeping Tom, The Ladykillers, The Ipcress File) dedicates the film to her beauty, which is breathtaking. His Germanic approach is manifest in Dutch tilts and symbolic shadows, but he also adopts Hollywood glamor lighting for sultry, lingering closeups of his star.
Only the abrupt ending lets this one down, really. Imported American star Neil Hamilton, as love interest, becomes a handicap because the movie just can't get interested in him, and someone chickened out over the climactic and essential firing squad scene. How do you possibly compete with Garbo and Dietrich's chichi executions? Gréville apparently decided not to bother, treating the event as an offscreen calamity, the way Ophüls always staged duels. But we're not in Ophülisian territory, despite the elaborate decor and frocks: this is gloriously camp melodrama, and it demands bullets thudding into ball gowns.