The Invisible Front

Original Title: Die unsichtbare Front. Spy drama 1932; 91 min.; Director: Richard Eichberg; Cast: Trude von Molo, Karl Ludwig Diehl, Theodor Loos, Helmuth Kionka, Paul Otto, Erik Werntgen, Veit Harlan, Ernst Dernburg, Michael von Newlinsky, Paul Bildt, Werner Pledath, Paul Hörbiger, Willi Schur, Rosa Valetti, Trude Berliner, Vera Witt, Otto Kronburger, Harry Hardt, Carl Auen; Universal-Europa-Tobis-Klangfilm.

A German boarding school girl is exploited by spies as a courier. The messages she delivers result in the death of her brother. Now, she works as a counter-spy in London. Together with a fellow countryman, she manages to escape after her cover is blown, while she herself is fatally wounded.

In open combat, fronts of all nations faced each other for years, with millions of people falling in the open war. But who knows and speaks of those countless victims of the army of spies who fought the war in the dark, fighters for their homeland on the “Invisible Front” of espionage!

One of the most interesting chapters is the adventurous fate of young Ellen Lange, who, raised in a girls’ boarding school in Hamburg, suddenly disappeared without a trace one day. Unable to bear the coercion at the institute any longer, she fled to her brother in Kiel. Rolf Lange, not very pleased with his sister’s unexpected visit, tries to persuade her to return to the boarding school immediately, as he himself is about to go on a secret mission to England.

In the rush of farewell, Ellen promises to return to Hamburg, but she boards the train to Berlin to preserve her freedom. Along the way, she meets a girl who agrees to find her a job in the capital. Through the mediation of “Aunt Jenny,” a somewhat questionable lady, Ellen unexpectedly quickly secures a position as a saleswoman in a music store, whose boss, Mr. Hansen, is a frequent guest at “Aunt Jenny’s.”

As Ellen proves herself, Hansen sends her to Copenhagen with a valuable violin, and since she has no papers, he provides her with a fake passport in his name. Upon delivering the instrument to the “Lyra Verlag” in Copenhagen, Ellen is horrified to learn that she unknowingly smuggled secret documents stolen in Berlin inside the violin and handed them over to the enemy espionage headquarters. Once trapped in the web of espionage, the inexperienced girl has no other way out but to seemingly serve the enemies.

By chance, Ellen learns that an employee of the “Lyra Verlag” named Erik Larsen is a spy, and they agree to fight together for Germany. Ellen is relieved to be able to make amends for her unwitting mistake in this way. With Larsen’s help, she manages to deceive the Copenhagen headquarters and, entrusted with a mission for Hansen, she returns to Berlin. However, instead of reporting to her former boss, she reports to the German intelligence service, and an hour later, the music store is raided.

To her deepest shock, Ellen learns that the documents she transmitted led to the destruction of the submarine on which her brother was taken to England. This realization guides her path, and she offers herself in the service of the fatherland and is sent to Copenhagen as a spy. Meanwhile, the minefield plans brought by Ellen inside the violin have fallen into the hands of the revue singer Mabel May, who travels to England hoping to cash in a fortune.

Larsen and Ellen discuss how to prevent the betrayal, and Larsen forges new plans that he intends to hand over to the head of the English intelligence service through Mabel May. Unfortunately, Larsen’s plane is shot down just off the coast, and although he saves himself, he arrives too late. Captain Roberts already possesses the genuine documents. Larsen tries to convince the English that only his documents are authentic, and as proof, duplicates made by Larsen in Copenhagen are brought in, just in case. However, before the evidence arrives, Larsen escapes from protective custody and meets Ellen at Professor Hardy’s, her collaborator and helper. Hardy insists that they cannot be seen together yet and that they have a major task to solve before their reunion.

In honor of the American military delegation, a grand ball takes place at the Savoy Hotel in London. Ellen attends and can hardly be recognized as the young girl who escaped from the boarding school. She captivates the American Colonel Stanley. Ellen manages to keep Stanley occupied until Larsen extracts important documents from his desk in the hotel room upstairs. Everything seems to have succeeded, but to her horror, Ellen discovers that she is suspected and being watched. Mabel May, whom she knows from Copenhagen, has betrayed her to Captain Roberts, and they hope to arrest Larsen as well. At this moment, the head of the “Lyra Verlag” arrives, and denial is of no use to Ellen as she is exposed.

Suddenly, panic breaks out in the ballroom. Zeppelins are over London, plunging the city into darkness, and the eerie wailing of sirens drowns out all noise. Larsen uses this chaos, with the documents in his pocket, to rescue Ellen from her dangerous situation. They flee towards the coast, where they will expect a German submarine at dawn. During this escape between life and death, the daring pair uses the headlights of their car to send light signals to the German pilots, indicating the location of an English ammunition depot. They succeed, the ammunition shed is destroyed, and the pursuers are held back by the explosions.

Finally, they reach the coast, and the racing car comes to a halt. Larsen turns to Ellen to escort her to the submarine. Ellen is dead. The shrapnel from a German bomb has ended her life after she fulfilled her mission, just before she could find the well-deserved happiness at home. Larsen can only bring her mortal remains back to the homeland. Collapsed, he sits by her deathbed in the hull of the submarine, racing towards the German coast.

L. H. E.’s review in Film Kurier No. 303 (December 24, 1932)
This invisible front represents the advancement into foreign territories during times of war: the espionage front, where enigmatic threads emerge, connecting one hostile capital to another. When Eichberg delves into an espionage theme, his focus lies not on the war itself, but rather on the inherent tension that accompanies such a subject, reminiscent of crime films.

With great dedication, Eichberg constructs a film of immense impact, weaving together a well-defined plot and expertly adapted editing. His enthusiasm permeates every frame, propelling the scenes forward and infusing them with a magnificent sense of adventure. While undeniably true to Eichberg’s signature style, this film showcases a new side of his artistry, revealing a trajectory that leads him towards fresh cinematic horizons.

Eichberg is supported by his talented screenwriters, Robert Stemmle (the playwright adapting to film) and Max Kemmich, who lay the groundwork for his vision. Rather than trenches, this story unfolds within the underground battle of intrigues and secret arts, immersed in a captivating social atmosphere that enthralls moviegoers. An unsuspecting girl from a boarding house becomes entangled in the power play between nations. Unwittingly responsible for her brother’s demise, she transforms into a conscious agent for her country, ultimately paying the ultimate price.

Eichberg skillfully portrays espionage as an inherent reality on both sides, introducing amiable gentlemen for whom it is a natural part of their world. The enemy is not portrayed as purely evil, and the film reflects the current era of more cordial relations between nations, leaving no room for offense. The war behind the invisible front unfolds within the reception halls of diplomats, brought to life by the artistic touch of Herrmann and Günther. Interspersed with gripping intensity, the film presents visions of naval battles that lack the horrors of trench warfare, instead evoking a distant and inexplicably heroic sentiment, akin to tales of faraway lands like “When far away in Turkey…”

Eichberg’s primary goal is to create an atmosphere of immense tension. Heroically, he refrains from interrupting the plot with alluring glimpses of the glamorous world of sets and dance parties. These elements are included sparingly, on the periphery, with even the love story hinted at through masterful editing. (An unmistakable hallmark of Eichberg’s style is a woman singing a song by Hans May with a champagne glass in hand or the unveiling of a theater dressing room.)

The grand adventure unfolds with vigor as Eichberg masterfully controls the effects, assisted by Bruno Mondis’ camera work. Every impact is maximized, and each idea is accentuated, captivating the viewer as Eichberg expertly maintains the tempo. Moments of respite are offered for humor, allowing the characters to speak in the authentic Richard-Ton dialect while incorporating witty puns from the screenwriters into crossfades.

Under Eichberg’s guidance, Trude von Molo exudes sophisticated fluidity, brilliantly leveraging her typically passive beauty. She is joined by a remarkable ensemble cast, including the noble Carl Ludwig Diehl, who combines melancholy with determination. Theodor Loos delivers a distinct performance, while Paul Otto brings refinement to his role. Alexander von Engström is presented not as the stereotypical vamp but as a formidable seductress, displaying toughness and a snub nose. Additional noteworthy performances are given by Jack Mylong-Münz, the handsome Helmuth Kionka, Veit Harlan, Ernst Dernburg, Michael von Newlinski, Paul Bildt, Werner Pledath, with occasional appearances by Paul Hörbiger, Willy Schur, Rosa Valetti, Trude Berliner, Vera Witt, all perfectly cast in their respective roles.

With its suspenseful narrative and superb cinematography, this film elicits resounding applause, as the audience is captivated by its seamless flow, leaving no room for dull moments. Die unsichtbare Front is sure to appeal to those who appreciate grand, captivating film adventures.