Monday, February 19, 2024

Thea von Harbou's Spies (Spione)

Spies (the original German title is Spione) is a 1929 spy novel by Thea von Harbou.

Thea von Harbou was married to Fritz Lang from 1922 to 1933 and wrote the screenplays for most of his great German movies. Some of her screenplays were based on her own novels while in other cases she wrote both the screenplay and the novel more or less simultaneously. While she is recognised as a very important screenwriter her novels are less well known in the English-speaking world.

Which is a great pity. Her novel Metropolis (written in tandem with her screenplay for Lang’s great movie) is superb and if you’re a fan of the movie the novel adds additional fascinating layers.

The movie Spies (or Spione) was released in 1928 and was ground-breaking - it was the first great spy movie made anywhere in the world. The novel is perhaps not so ground-breaking (spy fiction was already an established genre) but in its own way it was a step forward. There’s more emphasis on technology. There’s a lot more paranoia and there are complex multiple levels of betrayal.

It’s also perhaps the first major spy novel to put sex on centre stage. The spy fiction up to that point (William le Queux, E. Phillips Oppenheim, the Bulldog Drummond books and John Buchan’s Richard Hannay thrillers) tended to be fairly squeaky clean. The reality of course was that sex had always been one of the most effective weapons in the arsenal of intelligence agencies and had always been a major factor in luring people into the world of espionage. Thea von Harbou makes this very explicit. The most dangerous spies in the novel are women and they use sex ruthlessly to accomplish their missions. And sex is always there as a motivating factor, for the good guys as well as the bad guys.

There are also hints of the moral murkiness that Graham Greene and Eric Ambler would explore so successfully in their spy novels of the 1930s. There are villains in von Harbou’s novel but her villains can be motivated by idealism rather than a mere lust for power. Or, more dangerously, their motivations can be a blending of idealism and the desire for power.

The hero of the novel is an agent known only as Number 326. His chief, Jason, has given him the task of breaking a vast espionage organisation about which tantalisingly little is known. The immediate problem is a secret treaty which must at all costs remain secret.

He is soon distracted by other matters. Number 326 has always avoided entanglements with women but now he has a damsel in distress on his hands. She may have shot someone. He cannot believe that it could have been murder. And this woman, Sonia, awakens something in him. Perhaps he is after all capable of falling in love.

The question of course is whether he should trust her.

Number 326 has an ally, a Japanese master-spy. There is a question of trust involved here as well. This man is as honourable as a spy is capable of being but of course his loyalties are to Japan. Perhaps in this case the interests of Japan and of Number 326’s own country coincide perfectly. Perhaps.

Number 326 finds that love and duty don’t always mix well.

There’s decent suspense. Neither Number 326 nor the reader can be sure which characters will prove to be trustworthy and which ones will turn out to be treacherous. And treachery in this novel isn’t necessarily straightforward. The paranoia level slowly rises.

This is a story of espionage and a story of love and it works equally well on both levels.

It has a slightly different feel to contemporary British spy thrillers (spy fiction was at this early stage very much a British thing).

It’s a novel well worth reading and if you’re a fan of the movie it’s pretty much essential reading. And it's available in an English translation. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed von Harbou’s novels Metropolis and the flawed but strangely brilliant The Indian Tomb.


  1. I'll have to get hold of this. Der Spione is just about my favourite silent film, and this sounds like it expands on that a little.

    1. Yes. With both SPIONE and METROPOLIS I found that reading Thea von Harbou's novels added extra layers and richness and made watching the movies again more interesting.