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Silent Era Films on Home Video
Reviews of silent film releases on home video.
Copyright © 1999-2014 by Carl Bennett
and the Silent Era Company.
All Rights Reserved.
Spies
(1928)
 

After the financial disaster that was Metropolis (1927), UFA hung Fritz Lang out to dry. Lang responded by forming his own production company and returning — with Spies (1928) — to the familiar (and popular) territory of his early 1920s super spy films.

Rudolph Klein-Rogge, of Rotwang-Metropolis infamy, portrays the criminal mastermind that seeks to disrupt a European-Japanese treaty (presumably for economic and anarchic reasons). The film begins with the theft of secret documents that change hands violently, and several secret agents have been murdered. Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch) — a master of disguise who doesn’t seem to fool the bad guys since they have pictures of him in disguise — is fighting to uncover the criminal organization but doesn’t count on falling mutually in love with a Russian-born spy, Sonja (Gerda Maurus, in her film debut). The loving pair have to wrestle with their feelings, à la Romeo and Juliet, as they are forced to perform their sworn tasks.

At times the Thea von Harbou scenario plays like a sappy love story, an aspect that is exacerbated in the shortened American-release version which excised a substantial amount of the espionage and retained nearly all of the love interaction. Lang’s film plays better in its restored form that contains more action sequences and stylish visuals. For example, we love the shot of the three dead couriers returning their treaty envelopes to Japanese agent Matsumoto (Lupu Pick), and the shot of Sonja seen behind the roses she has just received from 326.

Fritsch is charming as the versatile Agent 326, and Maurus engaging as Sonja. But, Klein-Rogge is the star of this production as the slick and conniving master criminal Haghi. We also love the character of traitorous Colonel Jellusic as portrayed to delicious effect by the great Fritz Rasp.

Incidently, we want to point out the similarity of the scene where the spy Kitty manipulates her way into Matsumoto’s apartment to the scene in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) where the Daryl Hannah character, Pris, manipulates her way into J.F. Sebastian’s home.

On the whole, Lang’s fascinating tale of super spy intrigue gets sidetracked by von Harbou’s love story. — Carl Bennett

2004 Kino on Video DVD edition

Spies (1928), black & white, 143 minutes, not rated.

Kino International, K385, UPC 7-38329-03852-6.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, 192? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 18 chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $29.95.
DVD release date: 9 November 2004.
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 9 / audio: 8 / additional content: 8 / overall: 8.

This quality edition from Kino International has been mastered from the excellent 2004 35mm restoration materials from the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, differing greatly from the truncated American version of the film, and released for the first time on home video. The reconstruction effort began with an excellent original nitrate print of significant length from the Národni Filmovy Archiv in Prague, with missing footage inserted from nitrate prints held by Filmarchiv Austria, Screensound Australia, Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, with reconstruction assistance from Cinémathèque Française. The reconstruction was compiled from several 35mm prints held by world film archives. The results are spectacular. Nearly free of print flaws such as dust and speckling, the full-frame slightly-faster-than-natural-speed video transfer holds the fine image details and broad grayscale range of the restoration print. We are pleased to see footage here that was not retained in the shortened American-release edition. As would be expected, the storyline’s tangents make sense and the narrative flow is much improved.

This edition features a dynamic new musical accompaniment performed on digital piano and synthesizer by Donald Sosin.

This 2004 home video edition still looks great on an HD system with line doubling capabilities and is our recommended NTSC edition of the film.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 1 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 1 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
This Region 1 NTSC DVD edition is also available directly from KINO LORBER.
2005 Eureka Entertainment DVD edition

Spies (1928), black & white, 145 minutes, Classification PG.

Eureka Entertainment, EKA40087 (MoC 9), UPC 5-060000-40087-8.
Full-frame 4:3 PAL, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc, Region 2, 6.5 Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, German language intertitles, optional English language subtitles, 19 chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, £19.99.
DVD release date: 18 April 2005.
Country of origin: England

Ratings (1-10): video: 9 / audio: 8 / additional content: 8 / overall: 8.

This gorgeous Region 2 PAL edition is based on the same 2004 restoration materials from the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung as the Kino International edition noted above. The reconstruction effort began with an excellent original nitrate print of significant length from the Národni Filmovy Archiv in Prague, with missing footage inserted from nitrate prints held by Filmarchiv Austria, Screensound Australia, Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, with reconstruction assistance from Cinémathèque Française. The original German language intertitles were restored from flash titles in a duplicate negative held by Gosfilmofond. The results are spectacular. Nearly free of print flaws such as dust and speckling, the full-frame slightly-faster-than-natural-speed video transfer holds the fine image details and broad grayscale range of the restoration print. We are pleased to see footage here that was not retained in the shortened American-release edition. As would be expected, the storyline’s tangents make sense and the narrative flow is much improved.

This presentation features the original German language intertitles with optional English language subtitles, a new music score composed and performed on digital piano and synthesizer by Donald Sosin, a stills gallery containing rare promotional material, and a 20-page booklet with a new essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

For its high visual quality, we enthusiastically recommend this edition for collectors with a PAL format DVD player. North American collectors will need a region-free PAL DVD player capable of outputting an NTSC-compatible signal to view this edition.

 
United Kingdom: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 2 PAL DVD edition from Amazon.co.uk. Your purchase supports Silent Era.
2000 Whirlwind Media DVD edition

Spies (1928), black & white, 89 minutes, not rated,
with M (1931), black & white, 71 minutes, not rated, and All Puzzled (1925), black & white, 3 minutes, not rated.

Whirlwind Media, WDVD2007, UPC 6-88321-20072-1.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc, Region 0, 5 Mbps average video bit rate, 192 kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles (Spies only), English language subtitles (M only), chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $19.95.
DVD release date: 4 July 2000.
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 7 / audio: 5 / additional content: 6 / overall: 6.

It is certainly a relief to see two Fritz Lang films on one DVD for less than $20. But we asked, will the films look better than The Spiders (1919-1920) on DVD? Or will they look as horrible as the low-budget editions of Metropolis (1927)? It would be a collector’s dream to acquire Lang’s silent era action drama of international spies and his tour-de-force early sound film starring Peter Lorre as a sinister child murderer, both for less than a Jackson.

From the opening titles (and they are not the original main titles) we know that the source print for the video transfer of Spies was a 35mm print from the Blackhawk Films collection, prepared from an abridged American release of the film. All insert shots of letters, newspaper articles, handwritten notes, etc., are in English and are contemporary to the 1920s. We are familiar with the print from the early 1990s laserdisc edition, but were unable to confirm our suspicion that this was the same video transfer. This DVD features the same theater-organ score, as performed by the great Gaylord Carter, as was available on laserdisc.

Despite the fact that the American release of Spies was shorter than the German release, the print (and thus the story) seems to be relatively intact. The print is in very good condition, with moderate speckling, occasional print scratches and some print damage. The transfer is at correct running speed and holds a broad range of graytones. But we would have liked to have seen this in a windowboxed transfer. The letter to Jason of the Secret Service will be cut off on the left and right sides on most television monitors. On some occasions, the tops of heads are cropped off as well. While we respect and admire his performances, Carter’s organ score lends more than a Pickford-romance touch to the presentation of an action-thriller.

The DVD is supplemented nicely with Lang’s great early sound film, M, starring the equally great Peter Lorre. The soundtrack of this early sound film is noisy (and we can only assume that it is from being manufactured originally on a disc-based sound system?) but can be cleared up some by an adjustment to the viewer’s sound system. The good video transfer is of a moderately speckled 35mm print, with video master glitches to be seen at 4:01 into the film. The picture also has a case of minor twitches on the edits between shots for about 4-6 minutes, which appears to be in the video master as well. The subtitles in M have occasional spelling errors and have an annoying double-line to the vertical strokes of their typeface, possibly from being rendered on PC-based video. The subtitles are also part of the video transfer and cannot be turned off. The disc also features a Felix the Cat cartoon, 1923’s All Puzzled, transferred from a blurry and washed-out 16mm print which has fared better on other home video releases.

Despite our quality pickiness, this DVD was a good value for the moderate cost. But, the film M is available in a far superior presentation on DVD from Criterion, and this version of Spies is surpassed by the 2004 Kino edition noted above. This disc is of value only for a record of the edited American release version, and is now out-of-print.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
Other silent era FRITZ LANG films available on home video.

Other GERMAN FILMS of the silent era available on home video.

Other CRIME FILMS of the silent era available on home video.
 
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