23 June 2009

Die Spinnen (1919-1920)

d. Fritz Lang / Germany / Two parts, 124 mins.
Alt: "The Spiders"

The earliest surviving film from Fritz Lang (that we know of, at least) is his third, Die Spinnen, a two-part adventure serial released between 1919 and 1920 known commonly as The Spiders. It is a relatively simple film, bare-bones in its plot and very action oriented, and the influence from the already growing genre of the American western and from France's serial master Louis Feuillade are quite clear in the sense that "The Spiders" — a band of outlaws looking to reap treasure for themselves — are vaguely reminiscent of Feuillade's criminals in Les Vampires. Yet outside of the idea of Lang directing an uncharacteristically airy and chipper adventure serial, there's not much here to chew on.

The hero of the serial — which is divided into "The Golden Sea" and "The Diamond Ship" — is Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt), a wealthy and cavalier sportsman. He acquires a bottle found at sea that proclaims the possibility of Inca treasure in first episode and a powerful diamond in the second, and must race with The Spiders, led by Lio Sha (Ressel Orla) to be the first to reach the objects of their desire. What Hoog and The Spiders are searching for, of course, essentially doesn't matter; Lang, the film's screenwriter as well, happily employs the full force of the "Macguffin" practically a decade before Hitchcock. The plot serves only as a way to get characters from one exotic locale, or one fabulously decorated interior, to another — to put characters on trains, on boats, on balloons, on rocks, and in caves; to introduce kidnapping, espionage, gun-fights, and horse races; and to evoke as greatly as possible a sense of extravagance. There's nothing wrong with these sorts of things, but they're underdeveloped and occasionally gratuitous. The sense of exoticism linked to theme hadn't yet been developed in Lang's storytelling.

It should be of interest to those who regularly muse what might have been that Lang turned down The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to make The Spiders, which was originally envisioned to be a four-part series. It wouldn't be fair to suggest it was a bad career move for Lang, as he's obviously earned his own place in the pantheon through films much better than The Spiders, which is messy and unfocused and not as tight as it could be. The first installment ("The Golden Sea") is the better of the two, but both have soft strengths: lavish sets designed by Hermann Warm and above-average camerawork from the great cinematographer Karl Freund in one of his earliest films. There aren't many Lang fingerprints here, but The Spiders functions as a moderate thriller in spite of its insubstantial script. I wouldn't recommend it for attention outside the outlaw-ish band of Lang completists.


troncha 24 June, 2009  

Wonderful Lang!!!
Hi, I like your blog and I have thought about put a link in mine, you can go and read it.

T.S. 08 July, 2009  

Thanks for stopping by, Troncha.

Sam Juliano,  08 July, 2009  

T.S., I like this one a bit more than you, but I'll admit it desn't appeal to all that many. Perhaps because it's simple and action orientated in an era when static pacing was dominant, it was somewhat of a treat. But still not in the same league with DIE NIEBELUNGEN in this regard. i am a big fan, by the way of the Fuilliade work you mention here, not only LES VAMPIRES, but also FANTOMAS and JUDEX.

I never realized or remembered that Lang turned down CALIGARI to make this. Wow!

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