Spione (Spies), 1928
Dir: Fritz Lang
Easily my favorite film that I've seen by Lang, it also might be the first movie he made that began to move away from his "roots." That's not to say (do I use this expression a lot?) that this is void of the expressionist touches that are his claim to fame, but the tone of the film is actually pretty light, which makes some of the acting seem more appropriate. I was a little wary going into it, as it's almost 2 1/2 hours long (which is a chore no matter type of film it is), but you needn't worry that much. It only drags occasionally.
I guess you could watch this and groan at all the espionage and suspense cliches that pop-up, but I'm guessing that this actually invented a bunch of them. Of course, there is the diabolical, crippled criminal master-mind Haghi (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) who is hell-bent on world chaos. No reason is ever really given, and not even money is his goal, as he is the director of a bank (said bank being a "headquarters" for villains). The socio-political ramifications of the main villain being a banker are really poignant considering this was made in Germany in the 20s, but I don't really want to get too analytical. A handsome government agent, No. 326 (Willy Fritsch) is assigned to figure out the mess happening. Unbeknownst to the government, Haghi has his own agent Sonja (Gerda Maurus) sent in to cut him off with her feminine charms. Of course, she actually falls for him and things begin to get dicey for both agents.
The main thrust of the film is that Haghi wants to intercept a peace treaty being signed between Germany and Japan, which will of course create enmity between them. There are also Japanese agents running around in the film, of which particular importance is Dr. Masimoto (Lupu Pick), who gets the "oriental treatment" in the soundtrack every time he enters a room, which is hilarious. I think the most interesting scene in the whole film involves this Masimoto, who forgets his own rules about being duped by women, and has the treaty stolen from him. In his horror and shame, he has a vivid hallucination of the three underlings whom he sent out as decoys and were ultimately killed. They have dead eyes and hold out the fake documents in a sign of solidarity. The Japanese flag is even superimposed on the wall. A very elaborate sequence follows where the doctor commits seppuku, and while being over the top, is very interesting nonetheless. It's interesting because it's all a little more thought provoking than the typical surface level stuff.
The end of the film really turns on the velocity as no. 326 closes in on Haghi and things begin to get physical. Car chases, train crashes, bank raids. Lang always has a keen eye for compositions, but here he gets in real close with odd angles and multiple quick cuts, which only heightens the suspense. The very end is pretty clownish, but it it doesn't detract from a really fun experience. It's commercial cinema (for its time) plus pop art that doesn't take itself that seriously. I think that's all you can ask for.