Love and War: The Spy in Black (1939)


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“We are at war. Perhaps you forgot that, as I did for awhile. You are English, I am German, we are enemies!”

“I like that better.”

“And I. It simplifies everything.”

That conversation happens late in the 1939 thriller, The Spy in Black, but it strikes at the heart of the movie. The Spy in Black is notable as the first movie that the esteemed filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked on together, though not as co-directors. This first time out, Powell was the sole director and Pressburger, the screenwriter. The movie follows more along the lines of Powell and the duo’s early work, a small, intimate film, high on efficiency, low on bloat. The story is a rather average one (spies fooling each other in an effort to win one for the war effort) distinguished by the performances of Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, and the direction of Powell. But it also distinguishes itself in taking its little story and heaping upon it the moral quandaries of love and death in war, something that quote above speaks to. And in that respect, it is one of the best spy thrillers of the 1930s.

The story begins in 1917 as the Great War rages in Europe. Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is the commander of U-Boat 29 (the U.S. title of the film was, indeed, U-Boat 29) and he’s been given orders to sink an entire fleet of British warships. Working with him are English spies Jean (Valerie Hobson), a school mistress, and Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw), a British officer who has soured on the British navy and is willing to give info to the Germans for money. Ashington gives Hardt the information he needs to destroy the fleet the next day and Hardt is happy to have it but what he really wants is Jean. He has taken to her unexpectedly but she seems distant and indifferent to his feelings. It is quickly revealed that both Jean and Ashington are married and have entirely different names. Spying on them, Hardt realizes they’re actually working with the British to sink the German U-Boat fleet, not the other way around. Now Hardt must find a way to stop this plot while the British think their plan is safe and secure.


What happens that’s interesting on a personal level are the discussions Hardt and Jean have about the morals of killing people in war. When Hardt implies that Jean is heartless for using information to kill people, she fires back that he sinks entire ships with civilians. That’s different, he says. Certainly more wholesale, she replies. Later, during another discussion involving what Hardt is willing to do to save his men, which includes sinking a vessel with civilians that Jean’s plan has put in danger, she reminds him that there are women and children on board. Those deaths will be at your door, he says.

Each one acknowledges the collateral damage of war but takes great pains to catalog and compartmentalize the blame. Basically, both are willing to do whatever it takes and kill whoever needs to be killed as long as at the end of the day they can convince themselves it was someone else who is responsible. Sure, we have to kill people, but only because of this, this and this.

Coming in 1939, with Britain and Germany on the brink of war once again (in fact, when the film was released in the U.S., in October, 1939, World War II had already begun), the film has little patriotic fervor and much moral uncertainty. Like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), it was a movie filmed between the two global conflicts, which allowed both films the room to give the Germans a more sympathetic portrayal. Since these are World War I German soldiers, and not Nazis, they could also portray a human heart at the center of the German commander without the risk of sinking the whole operation. In fact, Hardt even has a line at one point, when speaking with the civilians he is holding as prisoners of war, that they will be shot if they make a sound, only to remark when a baby cries, “with one obvious exception.”


When the end comes and Hardt and Jean must go in their chosen directions to work with their own sides, they both feel a sense of loss, not just because they know others will die, but because the war itself has rendered intimate relationships between people of different nationalities all but moot. If they can accept that they are enemies and, by design, feel nothing, then it simplifies everything, as Hardt says, and makes it easier to take.

The Spy in Black was the first collaboration between Powell and Pressburger but Powell had been directing Quota Quickies for years (short productions, usually an hour or so in length, to satisfy British quotas for British movies in British theaters) and had long developed an instinct for quick action and efficient editing. Like those films, The Spy in Black has little to no dead space, no lingering scenes, no drawn out conversations. And Veidt and Hobson are terrific in their roles, making believable their dual conflicts between love of country and wholesale murder. Sebastian Shaw, as the double agent Ashington, does a fine job too but the emotional action is all Veidt and Hobson. As for Shaw, some of you might recognize his name from the third installment of the original Star Wars trilogy, The Return of the Jedi (1983). Shaw got the plum role of Darth Vader unmasked.

Powell and Pressburger became famous for works like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp(1943), Black Narcissus(1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), masterworks all, but there’s a lot of great work going on in their earlier films as well. The Spy in Black isn’t a great film but does shows all the signs of the greatness yet to come. And as their first film together, to paraphrase another Conrad Veidt movie, The Spy in Black marked the beginning of a beautiful film-making friendship.

Greg Ferrara

1 Response Love and War: The Spy in Black (1939)
Posted By Chuck Berger : May 12, 2017 8:54 pm

Another of my favorites, which was recently on TCM. I’ve never
seen a movie where I didn’t enjoy Conrad Veidt’s performance.
He passed away years too soon.
This was one of Valerie Hobson’s roles. Also, Great Expectations.I
think the movie was well done.

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