This sleek, entertaining late-silent super-production might have been something of a run for cover by Fritz Lang after the monumentally expensive, ambitious and demanding Metropolis. It’s not cheap, but it returns to the sort of thrills folks loved in his Dr Mabuse movies, with pulp devices that look back to Feuillade (a train-wreck is very like one in the Fantomas serial) and forward to all manner of Bondiana. The hypnotic villain is not Mabuse, though Rudolf Klein-Rogge again plays mastermind, but a literal no-one (Nemo the Clown) who most often appears as calm, wheelchair-bound Haghi, director of a bank which fronts for an organisation of (communist?) spies. Haghi sports Hitlerian slick hair and a Lenin-Trotsky goatee, but claims to be rich as Henry Ford (though he pays much less tax).
The apparently German-based spy is out to secure a copy of a secret treaty between Great Britain and Japan, which — if publically known — will cause war in Asia! His favoured methods involve seductive female agents, guilt-ridden Russian Sonja (Gerda Maurus) and ephebic, amoral Kitty (Lien Deyers). On Nemo’s case are a local counter-espionage agency which employs numbered operatives, notably the dashing Number 326 (Willy Fritsch), first seen in disguise as a tramp inveigling his way into the office of his M-like boss (Louis Ralph) and exposing a secretary as one of the villain’s minions. Later, 326 cleans up and becomes a dapper charmer, winning over Sonja, who eventually works with him against her former master. Half-way through, it’s shown that 326’s bosses also employ Nemo the Clown, and therefore most of this back-and-forth of spies is an utter charade. Sometimes, Haghi goes to great lengths to secure information Nemo must already have, perhaps to keep his double life going.
Like most of Lang’s silent work, it’s a film of remarkable moments and scenes rather than coherent plot: still-life glimpses of the opium-soaked private life of the blackmailable wife of a British diplomat who suffers through an awkward interview with the insistent Haghi; an overhead shot of a boxing match which pauses between rounds as couples in evening dress cluster round to dance, revealing this is all on the floor of a giant nightclub; a disgraced Japanese diplomat (Lupu Pick) assailed by the guilt-spectres of three murdered couriers who were only carrying dummy treaties (newspaper strips in impressive sealed envelopes) while he has let Kitty walk off with the real one, and committing a reverential hara-kiri as the Japanese flag flashes over the image; Sonja struggling wildly with the chair she is tied to as Haghi shares ‘the secret of my life’ with her by rising from his wheelchair and slipping out, leaving her to be overcome by poison gas; a wall covered with Metropolis posters on the noirish streets where waifs and well-born rotters conduct the business of spying; Fritz Rasp’s improbably waxed moustache as a disgraced and disgraceful Colonel selling out to the enemy; Deyers’ erotic deshabillé writhing as she simultaneously excites the diplomat’s pity and lust, worming her way into his trust; and 1928 high-tech communications gadgets which convey the latest news to the spy-master as he sits in his modernist bank office, wreathed by cigarette smoke and attended by a blandly sinister nurse he gives orders in sign language.
In an extraordinary finish, Nemo goes on stage as armed police close in, and goes through his strange act – which involves shooting at oversized puppet insects – while taking pot-shots at his enemies backstage and in the auditorium. Finally, laughing insanely, he shoots himself in the head and collapses (‘curtain down’) while the audience applauds wildly, thinking it’s all part of the show — which, in Lang’s terms, of course it is.