When you think of director Fritz Lang, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? For most of us, it is probably the image of Brigitte Helm as a robot on the DVD cover of the science fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927). Even if the name of the film does not immediately ring any bells, the images from it do.
Some of you might also think of Lang’s first talking picture, the thriller M, which introduced most audiences to the pint-sized psychopath extraordinaire Peter Lorre.
But if I were to mention the thriller Spione (English title Spies), would you know what I am talking about? Maybe, maybe not. And you (especially if you are outside of Germany) are probably even less familiar with the film’s star, Willy Fritsch.
Who Was Willy Fritsch?
Willy was born Wilhelm Egon Fritz Fritsch in Prussia (of the German Empire) on January 27, 1901, and was raised in Berlin. He began his long acting career on the Berlin stage, and by 1921 he was in the pictures, first appearing in a supporting role in the picture Miss Venus.
He became known for his comedic roles and was often paired with British-born actress Lilian Harvey in operettas throughout the 1930s, such as 1931′s Der Kongress Tanzt (The Congress Dances). And, as you should know by now, I chose to mention that particular picture because it also stars my love, Conrad Veidt, as Prince Metternich.
In all, Willy appeared in 11 pictures with Harvey, and his legacy as a “sunny boy” singer and German matinée idol was set.
Unfortunately, these singing/dancing fluff extravaganzas he starred in with Harvey overshadowed his ability as a great dramatic actor trained by the famed actor/director Max Reinhardt. While these films are watchable, they are not classics by any stretch of the imagination.
Willy Fritsch’s films like Spione, which should be considered classics, are buried under a pile of mediocre films that have bigger names and bigger budgets behind them. And it is up to film buffs (such as myself) to make people aware that these great films are still out there, waiting to be watched and appreciated all over again.
Willy Fritsch as Agent No. 326
Fritz Lang’s Spione was released in March 1928 and through the years has become a cult classic of sorts among Lang fans and fans of secret agent movies (such as the James Bond series).
Willy Fritsch plays the dashing secret agent known only as his code name No. 326. He is summoned by Chief Jason (Craighall Sherry), the head of the Secret Service to help solve an international crime ring responsible for the disappearance of important documents and the murder of important people.
The Secret Service has been made a laughing-stock for its inability to solve these crimes, so Jason needs No. 326 to come through for him and restore the good name of the department.
The viewer soon finds out that the mastermind behind the crimes is a devilish-looking, wheelchair-bound figure called Haghi, who is head of the Haghi Bank.
Haghi has long been a thorn in the Secret Service’s side, and many agents have died trying to capture him. He is always one step ahead of the police, and knows everything about No. 326 and the Secret Service’s plans.
He brings in a beautiful blonde Russian spy named Sonja Barranikowa (Gerda Maurus) to help him get information from No. 326. She was very good at getting what she wanted, and she proved it with her seduction of Colonel Jellusic. It should be easy to seduce No. 326.
What Haghi and Barranikowa did not expect was for Barrankinowa to fall in love with No. 326. (And who could blame her? Seriously. He is GORGEOUS, after all.)
Naturally Haghi becomes pissed that his best spy has fallen in love with someone who is out to expose him, so he locks her away and plots to kill No. 326 and anyone else who dares to get in his way.
Will he get away with it? Will Sonja Barranikowa and No. 326 live happily ever after? You have to watch the flicker to find out, of course. I’m not giving anything else away.
Overall, it is a beautifully filmed and terribly underrated story that should be given just as much (if not more) exposure than Metropolis. And Willy Fritsch, who masterfully made use of many emotions throughout the film, should be known for this role and other roles like it and not the fluffy junk he did with Lilian Harvey.
Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below