The Spiders (1919)
When Fritz Lang began in film he was a better writer than director. This lavish two-part thriller sees him concocting a multi-genre mashup, shoehorning cowboy action thrills and an exotic lost Incan civilization into dagger-and-poison serial skullduggery.
1919 / B&W / 1:33 flat / 173 min. / Street Date August 23, 2016 / Die Spinnen / available through Kino Classics / 29.95
Starring Carl de Vogt, Ressel Orla, Lil Dagover, Georg John.
Cinematography Karl Freund
Designers Otto Hunte, Carl Ludwig Kirmse, Heinrich Umlauff, Hermann Warm
Music (2012) Ben Model
Produced by Erich Pommer
Written and Directed by Fritz Lang
There appears to be nothing new under the sun, even if lovers of Indiana Jones don’t realize that most everything he did, had been done long before in silent serials. I have a lazy habit here of claiming that Fritz Lang invented most of the basic ideas we see in every adventure genre except the western. But these thrill-a-minute nail-biters from just after World War One make us realize that Lang was only embellishing an existing suspense serial genre, which itself was derived from penny-dreadful books that had been popular for more than a century.
Kino and the Murnau Stiftung dig way deep into the Fritz Lang filmography to unearth his first big production made after the war, an action serial originally meant to be in four parts collectively called, The Adventure of Kai Hoog in Unseen Worlds. Two years before he met Thea von Harbou, Lang wrote these scripts alone, in the serial adventure style of the day: everything is incident, action and violence, with little or no character development. Only two films were produced. Die Spinnen, 1. Teil – Der Goldene See (The Spiders part 1 – The Golden Sea) was released in 1919 and Die Spinnen, 2. Teil – Das Brilliantenschiff (The Spiders part 1 – The Diamond Ship) followed the year after. I don’t know the restoration history of the pictures, but can remember giving up on a laserdisc presentation in the early 1990s — the show was in such tatters that the story didn’t seem to follow the outline in Lotte Eisner’s book on Fritz Lang. This newer Blu-ray presentation appears to be the same restoration as was released on DVD by Kino in 2012. It is much improved, if still not a beauty. It’s almost forty minutes longer, to begin with, and with additional materials that came from Czechoslovakia and Belgium.
Fritz Lang took the serial action formula seriously. His later masterpiece Dr. Mabuse is a glorified serial, and both his spy dramas and crime fantasies make good use of the serial form, improving on the idea of ‘compressed dynamic incident’ by overlapping events and joining seemingly unrelated actions with a thematic through-line. The Spiders isn’t organized beyond its episodic nature. Its spectacular scenes and imaginative thrills don’t have quite the ‘architectural’ form of thrillers like Hangmen Also Die! and The 1,0000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, fascinating constructions in which every narrative puzzle piece has been positioned almost scientifically into the story. The Spiders has few surprises for modern audiences, so the task of appreciation requires viewers to imagine how fresh and shocking it must have been, almost a hundred years ago.
Anybody watching the first installment The Golden Sea will likely be reminded of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Its adventurer-hero dresses a bit like Indiana Jones, is after a fabled treasure, and eventually makes his way to a lost civilization, finding an Incan temple that comes complete with secret passageways and death-dealing booby traps. Working from the Jules Verne-like clue of a message in a bottle, millionaire Kai Hoog (Carl de Vogt) races for the Southern hemisphere. His nemesis is Lio Sha (Ressel Orla), an even more unlikely treasure hunter who is also the leader of a secret crime league. “The Spiders” dress in top hat and tails to attend Lio Sha’s secret meetings; an amusing scene has them all pulling out their checkbooks to fund their mistress’s next nefarious scheme. When on the prowl, The Spiders dress up in black quasi-ninja outfits identical to those worn by Louis Feuillade’s much more famous French serial foes, Les Vampires. When asked, Fritz Lang said he never saw the Feuillade serials. His excuse isn’t half bad: French films weren’t distributed in Germany during wartime, and he was serving in the army anyway.
Lio Sha leaves a toy spider at every crime scene, as her personal badge of infamy. She hires a group of cowboys to help her Spiders attack the fortified Incan temple. They engage Kai Hoog in a chase on horseback until he escapes in a balloon. In one shoot-out confrontation, one of Lio Sha’s henchmen is apparently shot in the head — when he rolls over his face seems obscured by gore makeup — in 1919!
Kai Hoog’s progress continues in a heroic vein. He rescues the beautiful Incan sun priestess Naela (Lil Dagover of Destiny) from an impressively huge python. He also rescues Lio Sha from being sacrificed on an Incan altar. A big spear vs. six-gun battle breaks out. Our new lovers are carried to safety in an escape pod, through an underground waterway to the sea. Lio Sha can’t keep her army of crooks from killing each other over the treasure, until she’s left with just one babbling, insane cohort, who clutches a rock as if it were made of gold. These ironies come across as pure Fritz Lang. Of course, the movie is unconcerned that the greedy interlopers (Kai Hoog included) have wiped out an ancient surviving civilization.
The actors don’t get much of a chance to perform. The script reduces them to mechanical types, and Lang doesn’t go in for emotional or introspective scenes. Carl de Vogt looks right and moves well, so that’s all that’s required. Ressel Orla puts neither menace nor charm into her ‘evil’ villain role, and we wonder why any of her underlings allow her to lead. Lil Dagover at least conveys a virginal quality as the princess that captures Kai Hoog’s heart. Her Naela seems not at all reluctant to abandon her people. She hops in a basket and escapes with Hoog over a waterfall. The only other recognizable actor is Georg John, who became a regular in a number of Lang’s German films, most notably as the sharp-eared blind balloon seller in “M”.
The sets are really well done, having been inspired by the study of real Incan ruins. The temple and its tunnels and underground waterfall are impressively designed. It can’t be said that Fritz Lang has really come into his own yet as a director. The print on view may be missing shots and scenes, as some of the continuity (the balloon escape) looks fragmented. But the staging of events is rather haphazard, as in the big battle scene where Lang’s camera stays in wide shots as the fighting cowboys and Incan warriors mostly jump and dance around. The editing is anything but tight, leaving us to wonder if the editor (probably Lang himself) had access to any sort of viewing device while cutting. There is little attempt at creating a flow of continuity across cuts. Lio Sha is seen in a wide shot stumbling amid the battle, and then a closer shot will show her elsewhere on the set, engaged in some other action. To our sensibilities, the pacing seems all wrong, but that may be due partially to missing material.
If The Golden Sea is an Indiana Jones adventure, the second feature The Diamond Ship seems partly like Big Trouble in Little China. Instead of an exotic adventure in a lost world, this story has the heroic Kai Hoog battling Lio Sha and her Spiders for possession of a Buddha-shaped diamond, which will confer on its holder the ability to rule all of Asia. If Ressel Orla’s Lio Sha is Asian, she sure doesn’t look it. Considering that the characters are given zero depth; it’s barely noted that she’s secretly jealous of Kai Hoog’s sweethearts, enough to murder one of them just for spite.
Although the first film had some fantasy and Sci-fi elements, including a mirror that serves as a television spy device, The Diamond Ship sticks to the basics of the crime serial. Lang organizes a complex bank robbery, cleverly aiming his camera downward to show the pattern of cubicles as The Spiders tie up guards and cut through walls. Kai Hoog and the cops assault Lio Sha’s headquarters only to be slowed up by trap doors, confusing corridors and steel-lined chambers. A title tells us that the police stay away from ordinary crime in Chinatown, but know nothing of the mysterious tunneled underworld beneath the Chinese district, a place so secret that white men dare not go. Kai Hoog must use a coded passkey to gain entrance. He gets by tigers used as guards and hides out by pretending to partake in a subterranean opium den. Meanwhile, Lio Sha rushes back from Asia with the information that a rich Londoner named Terry has the fabled Buddha diamond. The Spiders kidnap Terry’s beautiful daughter, almost as if to provide more excitement for the final rescue. The race continues halfway around the world to a cave in the Falkland Islands, where poison volcanic gas awaits the raiders of the lost diamond.
Part two is less outrageous, and we miss the elaborate lost Incan civilization; instead we get a great many confusing subterranean interiors and a gloomy, generic cave location. Lotte Eisner tells us that the second film was shot in winter, and the weather forced most all of the scenes indoors to be created on Decla’s stages. Producer Erich Pommer had done well in the German industry, even staying afloat during the catastrophic war years. As the man behind The Cabinet of Caligari and most of F.W. Murnau’s pictures, Pommer recognized Lang’s potential early on.
Hints of Kai Hoog’s unfilmed adventures come with the titles of Fritz Lang’s abandoned scripts: Die Spinnen, 3. Teil – Das Geheimnis der Sphinx (The Spiders part 3 – The Secret of the Sphinx) and Die Spinnen, 4. Teil – Um Asiens Kaiserkrone (The Spiders part 4 – For the Sake of Asia’s Imperial Crown). The only (subliminal) political theme I detect in the serial, is that Lang is concerned that some nefarious Eastern power, by connivance or magic, will seize all of Asia and expel the foreign powers that control it.
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of The Spiders is a solid encoding of a restoration that’s bound to have issues. Many of the Murnau Stiftung restorations look remarkable, but some of them incorporate newly found superior elements, and could afford expensive digital tools to revitalize them, the most dramatic example being Metropolis. For The Spiders a perfect film element hasn’t been located, although it is very good to see it reconstructed back to something like its original length. Most images are reasonably sharp, looking much better than the weak frame grabs pictured here. But no scenes are as sharp as the still above of Kai Hoog and the snake. It is difficult to fully appreciate the splendor of those extravagant Incan temple sets. And then there are scenes like the balloon escape in Part one, where shots seem to be missing. Those that remain are printed out of frame and have some kind of pattern superimposed over them. But this is not a complaint, as we’re grateful to have The Spiders restored to this degree.
Ben Model’s music score — all three hours of it — greatly enhances the viewing experience. Besides some helpful liner notes on the back cover, Kino’s presentation offers no extras. Purchasers of The Spiders are likely to already be fans of Fritz Lang, and likely already have some idea of what they’re getting into.
It seems possible that even Lang’s biographer Lotte Eisner, who passed away in 1983, never saw a version of The Spiders as complete as this one. Her description of scenes in The Diamond Ship read as if taken from old reviews. It is gratifying to read her excellent book, where she takes care to inform us of missing scenes from Metropolis, Hangmen Also Die! and Cloak and Dagger. Without scholarship like this, the deletions may have been forgotten and never sought out for restoration.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Spiders Blu-ray rates:
Video: Good –
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Inter-titles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 12, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson