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The SpidersThe Spiders

(German, 1918, 137 minutes, color, 35mm, silent)

Directed by Fritz Lang

Carl de Vogt . . . . . . . . . . Kay Hoog
Ressel Orla . . . . . . . . . . Lio Sha
Georg John . . . . . . . . . . Dr. Telphas
Lil Dagover . . . . . . . . . . Sonnenpriesterin

Made in 1919 for the German Decla film studio, Spiders (Spinnen) was director Fritz Lang’s third feature film. A huge box office success, Spiders established Lang’s international reputation. Newly remastered by film historian David Shepard from 35mm materials, with an organ score by the great Gaylord Carter, this new version of Spiders is far superior to Kino on Video’s 1989 edition. Lang made two chapters of Spiders, which were intended to be shown separately; two more chapters were planned, but never made. Part one, released in 1919, titled Der Goldene See (The Golden Sea), introduces the mysterious, secret organization "Die Spinnen" and their nefarious plot to steal the gold of the dying Inca civilization.

The story begins in San Francisco as adventurer and yachtsman Kay Hoog (Carl De Vogt) discovers a note in a bottle, the plea for aid from a Harvard anthropologist held captive by the remnants of the Incas. The efforts of the intrepid Hoog are opposed by the evil forces of the vampish Lio Sha (Ressel Orla). The Golden Sea proved so immensely popular that Lang was pulled from his next project—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (ultimately directed by Robert Wienne)—in order to direct its sequel, Das Brillantenschiff (The Diamond Ship), released in 1920. The proposed third and fourth chapters were to have been titled The Secret of the Sphinx and For Asia’s Imperial Crown—a disappointment for silent film fans!

While Lang’s muse of Spiders was Feuillade, whose raw and irreverent serials such as Les Vampires impressed Parisian audiences, the thriller format of Spiders feature the many important artists of the German cinema involved in its production. Among them was set designer Hermann Warm—renowned for his work on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—created elaborate Oriental-inspired sets for Spiders, borrowing exotic designs from the Ethnological Museum of Hamburg.

The Silents Majority (e-zine)

The first episode of the adventure series, The Adventures of Kai Hoog in Known and Unseen Worlds, according to Der Kinematograph (8 October 1919), was to be the first film "produced by Decla film company, recently put back on its feet again by a massive capital injection." As customary in the period following the end of hostilities [of the First World War], there is a sentence to the effect that everybody is "very proud to produce work which may also attract attention abroad." "The Decla Company," the notice continues, "intends with this series to become a rival to the American film industry, which makes mainly Westerns… Our film industry can be proud of this film work and other countries will acknowledge with envy the advances we have been making, when they see this film."

The tone of this article must be attributed partly to its appearance in a trade journal; partly to the massive inferiority complex of a country defeated in the war, and heightened by the difficulties of breaking into foreign markets. (As late as 1921 Caligari had to be called Austrian in order to get a showing in Paris.) Hence the talk about "massive capital injection" and the assertion that people in foreign countries, faced with the brilliant novelties from the German film market would not be able to close their eyes to the fact that in spite of all the fateful happenings of the past, the Germans remain efficient and take pride in their work and are "clever fellows" still….

The reasons for the fading away of the serial and the abandoning of the proposed further episodes was evidently internal, and in no way indicated a lack of interest on the part of the audience: indeed, reviewers did not hesitate to predict success for the second film on account of its "skillful dramatic effects." But against Lang’s protests, shooting of Das Brilliantenschiff (originally named Sklavenschiff) was not begun until the autumn… and because of bad weather conditions, filming had to be transferred from the Hagenbeck grounds to the studio. Angry, Lang severed his contract with Decla [Studios] and signed a new one with Joe May [Studios].

— Lotte H. Eisner, Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang might have been dreamed up as the stock image for the imperious European film director. Aloof, even terrifying, the patrician Lang actually did affect a monocle. Filmmaking was for him a clinical business: His scripts and sets were carefully planned; his movies more a matter of architecture than of inspiration. To actors, he was generally a terror; most, although they knew the films they had done with him were among the best they’d ever be associated with, chose not to work with him again. Lang’s iciness made people shudder.

And yet his films are among the most vivid investigations of the varieties of evil the screen has given us. Most famously, there is the totalitarian mastermind of METROPOLIS, sitting at the controls of his television monitor, watching the city and the millions of proletarian slaves who labor for him in its underground galleries. But there is also the spitting, self-righteous bloodlust of the mob in FURY, the inhumanity of the State in YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, the elegant, poised Nazis of MAN HUNT, MINISTRY OF FEAR, and HANGMEN ALSO DIE, reminding one chillingly of Lang himself.

But Lang was an anti-Nazi exile. In his version of the story, he had fled Germany the morning after being offered command of the Nazi filmmaking apparatus by Josef Goebbels, speaking on behalf of Hitler, who, said Goebbels, greatly admired METROPOLIS. Lang knew evil well, up close and personal. It is no surprise, therefore, that in Lang’s cinematic world, evil is never banal, as Hannah Arendt would have it, meek and officious. Instead, it is passionate, ambitious, dreaming of power layered upon power. Lang’s villains are almost always far more interesting than his heroes, demonic protagonists who want more, always more—more ill-gotten money, more sadistic thrills, more hapless subjects. Some of them, like "Carl Buckley," the hulking train yard supervisor in HUMAN DESIRE (1954) patrol dusty little criminal domains, and dream of penthouses; others, like THE BIG HEAT’s gangster "Vince Stone," already have the penthouse, and want the city. "Tomorrow the world" is their call, no matter how small or great the world about them is.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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