Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger first teamed up for the 1939 low-budget World War I espionage thriller The Spy in Black. It’s both an entertaining and thoughtful story of German spies infiltrating British naval headquarters at the height of the Great War in 1917. Powell and Pressburger, who would go on to make some of the greatest films in British cinema together, play with audience expectations and interrogate the fine line between war as a means to diplomatic ends and war as a self-sustaining myopic monster.
German agents intercept and kill a young school teacher on her way to her new post on the Orkney Islands north of Scotland which serves as the base of British naval operations. To gain access to the heavily guarded island, the Germans substitute one of their agents, Frau Tiel (Valerie Hobson), to take over the teacher’s identity. She travels to the island and takes her post, fooling everyone. Tiel eventually rendezvouses with Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt), a German naval officer who snuck ashore from his U-boat waiting off the island. Together they work with a disaffected British officer who passes information of shipping maneuvers and works out the optimal time to strike and sink the entire fleet.
As enthralling as the cloak and dagger stuff is, Powell and Pressburger focus on the human interactions between and among the spies and their British traitor. We, against our better judgment, go along with their plans, sympathize with the spies, hold our breaths when they are faced with danger and the plans threatened. All this emotion is expended despite them being the “enemy.” We become wrapped up in their nefarious plans because Powell and Pressburger toy with our allegiance and moral sense by having us identify with the “bad guys.” They cunningly show that when we connect with characters we are much more likely to ignore (or at least overlook) their immoral motivations. In the case of this war film, nationalism is trumped by character and personality, an interesting argument in the face of war with Germany.
Nationalism depends on the facelessness of the other to truly sway populaces. On the eve of the Second World War with Britain threatened by the German fascist threat, Powell and Pressburger avoided perpetuating the faceless other. Instead of strictly reinforcing the German threat they give them faces that, for at least part of the movie, we identify with. Of course everything comes out right in the end because of a nice twist, not everything was as it appeared, and British nationalistic pride is ultimately reinforced. Powell and Pressburger skillfully make a thoughtful point without subverting national propaganda needs in a time of impending war.
Beyond all of my ruminations about nationalism and propaganda, The Spy in Black is, ultimately, an nail-biting thriller with unexpected twists and turns that all lead to an gripping climax on the high seas. Watch it as a comment on war and nationalism or as a fun spy movie or, as I did, both. Any way you look at it The Spy in Black is a masterful film and provides a great indicator for the future success of the Powell and Pressburger team.