The world is headed for crisis with an unknown power making assassination attempts on diplomats and stealing important, top secret papers so that the upcoming signing of a treaty with Japan is placed in jeopardy - and peacetime with it. Who could be behind this espionage? The man in question is none other than Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who not only is the leader of a spy organisation but also the director of the influential Haghi Bank and he's running rings around the secret service. Meanwhile, a scruffy homeless man is picked up off the street and summoned to the secret service offices in handcuffs - but like Haghi, he's not what he seems either...
Spione tends to be overshadowed by the other silent films of its director Fritz Lang, but that's not to say it's without entertainment value, it actually sets the early precedent for the long running cycle of James Bond movies and their imitators that arrived in the sixties. Scripted by Lang's wife Thea Von Harbou from her novel, it has all the hallmarks with an evil genius at the head of his personal network of evildoers, a secret agent hero who is known by his code number (326 this time, not 007) and romances one of the villain's lady operatives, numerous gadgets and doses of sex and two-fisted action to spice things up.
That scruffy homeless man is of course No. 326 (Willy Fritsch) and he saves the day by exposing a spy in his boss's offices when he notices an assistant taking pictures with a tiny hidden camera. Despite his current appearance, No. 326 is a suave sophisticate, and as fate would have it, a woman falls into his arms after shooting someone dead in a hotel. This woman is Sonja (Gerda Maurus), who is secretly one of the operatives of Haghi, and No. 326 helps her hide from the pollce. There is plenty of plot to keep track of in Spione, almost too much to be honest with all those double crossings and the panic that anyone could be working for your enemy.
Sonja is connected to a wicked Colonel, who it's difficult to see working undercover with that waxed moustache, and just as all roads used to lead to Rome, all plot strands lead to Haghi. He wants to get his hands on the Japanese treaty which is being sent from the city to Japan by three Eastern men, one of whom may have it or may not, so just to be sure Haghi gets his hands on all three envelopes. However he's foiled - they all contain scraps of newspaper - and his slinky female employee Kitty (Lien Deyers) fools the Japanese diplomat by bedding him and then stealing the real treaty. And now No. 326 is on Haghi's hit list.
Less visually striking than Metropolis, Spione nevertheless features plenty of occasions to make an impression, such as the boxing match filmed from above that is bizarrely transformed into a ballroom dance the second the bell sounds for the end of the round. Then there's the dream sequence that prompts the Japanese diplomat to take drastic action, or the numbers flashing before Sonja's eyes when she 's trying to recall their significance. What's really missing is more action to accompany the paranoia; the story moves at a breakneck pace, but it's not until the last hour when No. 326 boards a doomed train that the movie's adrenaline really gets pumping. However, it's the villain that finally makes his mark, what with everyone else running after him, and his grand finale on stage is unforgettably weird.
Tyrannical, monocle-sporting, Austrian-born director who first became established in Germany, significantly due to his second wife Thea von Harbou who wrote many of his scripts for him including famous silents Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Niebelungen, revolutionary sci-fi Metropolis, Spione and Lang's first sound effort, the celebrated M (which catapulted Peter Lorre to fame).
He had caught the interest of the Nazis by this time, so after another couple of Dr Mabuse films he decided to flee the country rather than work for them (von Harbou stayed behind), and arrived in America. There he was quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers to create a string of memorable thrillers, such as Fury, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, and the World War II-themed Hangmen Also Die, which fed into a talent for film noir he took advantage of in the forties. Some of these were Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and Secret Behind the Door, noirish Western Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. After the fifties and one final Mabuse film, Lang had difficulty getting work due to his bad-tempered reputation and increasing blindness, but stayed a personality in the movie world right up to his death.