Occasionally, I find old movies difficult to get invested in, but director Michael Powell’s The Spy in Black (1939) won me over with its nifty plot, timely commentary, and dark irony. Set during World War I, it’s about an espionage mission assigned to a German U-boat commander, Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt), who is dispatched to the Orkney Islands on a mission against the British. There he meets his contact, “Anne Burnett” (Valerie Hobson) – a German impostor who has replaced an innocent schoolmistress. “Anne” lays out the details: the Germans have turned a disgraced British naval officer, Commander Ashington (Sebastian Shaw), against his own people. Ashington will provide exact details of an upcoming fleet maneuver, so that German U-boats can intercept and sink the lot of them. From the deprivations of Germany to the relative luxury of the British Isles, Hardt’s mission has him over the moon…enhanced by his attraction to his fellow spy. But unfortunately for him, the British have other plans.
The Spy in Black is difficult to follow at first, as the players are introduced and the stage is set, but soon enough Hardt’s mission is underway and the clever plot kicks into gear. Following the point of view of the enemy is a refreshing switch, and the film is unusually sympathetic to its German agents, even as it ruthlessly, pointedly turns the tables on them. Taken in light of the era in which it was made – with World War II imminent – the film’s quick-witted, shifty, and nuanced message reads as an eloquent rejoinder to Hitler’s “stabbed in the back” rhetoric. This is the kind of unusual gem I was hoping for I started reviewing the Spy 100 list. Recommended, especially for history buffs.