NOTE: this piece contains SPOILERS.
Can’t think of a better way to start the 2017 collector’s year than by shouting the hosannas for the extraordinary Blu-Ray restoration of Fritz Lang’s 1919 opus DIE SPINNEN (aka The Spiders), now available in its complete two-part version Von dieser Bande an Kino Classics (in association with the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, Wiesbaden, Narodn filmovy archiv, Prague and the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique).
The splendid re-assemblage at last does justice to the fictional undertaking of the picture’s stoic hero Kay Hoog (the equally stoic Carl de Vogt). Take my word, if you’ve ever seen this pre-1920 epic before, you’ve never really seen it until you’ve viewed this terrific platter.
DIE SPINNEN was a very personal project for Lang (and only Lang could make an opulent, lushly produced extravaganza intimate and personal). The director/writer (the last time he would take solo script credit for a work) was inspired by the works of Feuillade (particularly Fantomas) and the American serial cliffhangers, paying homage to the latter by having his protagonist be an American and having main locales set in or immediately outside the United States (in reality, a meticulous indoor/outdoor Hamburg refurbishing by the brilliant art and set designers Hermann Warm and Otto Hunte).
Indeed, so dear was this super adventure to Lang’s heart that he turned down the most prestigious project going on in Germany at the time, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Nevertheless he did borrow its gorgeous female star Lil Dagover to portray one of DIE SPINNEN‘s unforgettable female leads.
As indicated, DIE SPINNEN is divided into two feature-length motion pictures, Der Goldene See (The Golden Sea) and Das Brillantenschiff (The Diamond Ship); the former runs a brisk 69 minutes, the latter clocks in at 104 minutes (each still considered extravagant for 1919). It’s a slam-Lang action tale that, even by 2017 standards, remains engrossing and fast-paced. Did I say “even,” I meant “especially,” as this quicksilver saga dashes the post-Millennium CGI crop (did I say “crop,” I meant…) into the RealD pixel dust.
In an exclusive San Francisco club are the high-rolling gamblers, whose interests transcend more than baccarat and poker. They’re playing with territorial borders, secret treasures and lives. Key to the more dastardly doings are representatives from an international crime ring, known as the Spiders (they leave their telltale calling card, a tarantula, at the scene of each atrocity). Plunger (and everything else) extraordinaire Kay Hoog intercepts the club’s visiting villains, Dr. Telphas (Georg John) and the rapturous femme fatale with one of the best names ever, Lio Sha (Ressel Orla). Their goal is an Incan cache of Peruvian gold, crucial to assuring the services of the highest-paid Spider assassins/spies/thieves/politicians (encompassing a complete stererotypical cringe roster of hand-wringing Chinese Spiders, Jewish Spiders, Mexican Spiders, mystic East Indian Spiders, etc).
As much for the thrill than anything else, Hoog embarks on an odyssey to stop the plunder of these ancient, but lethal people. And Lio ain’t gonna be waitin’ around for a streetcar either. It was still the Wild West then, primarily in the eyes of the cowboy vs. Indians-obsessed Germans, so it’s cool to see modern-day battles in 1880s-like situations. THE SPIDERS doesn’t scrimp on production values, as it unfolds its many escapes, rescues and chases with the exciting addition of automobiles, aircraft, horses and hot-air balloons. There are also a plethora of high-tech devices, including conference call surveillance, thanks to the fertile mind of Herr Lang.
It’s while infringing upon Incan soil that Hoog comes upon the Sun Goddess Naela (Dagover). She at once relinquishes all for a future with the adventurer; fortunately, for her, it’s reciprocal. Unfortunately for her, Sha, whose life Hoog has saved, is now obsessed with the dashing American, and intent on bedding him as part of her likely bisexual pantheon (Lio appears to swing alternatively, comfortable with chaps of both the apparel and gender kind). Rebuffed by her rescuer, (the dare-I-say) Spider-woman then moves on to the obvious Plan B – killing off the competition, which she does in bravura fashion. And Part One ends with Hoog’s swearing vengeance on the woman he once saved.
Part Two opens with the eternally mourning Hoog receiving word that a fantastic diamond mine (ownership guaranteeing the crown of Asia) is now under siege by a Sha-led Spider contingent; there’s also a new damsel in destress, Ellen Terry (Thea Zander). Haunted by visions of his beloved (rendered on-screen by welcome ghostly Dagover cameos), Hoog perilously hovers over the Spiders like the sword of Damocles and the action revs up for a breathtaking thrill-packed conclusion involving murders, suicides, kidnapping and a secret King Solomon-like mine guarded by nature’s own poisonous gas (not so unusual to those who’ve ever had a roommate).
While many criticize the second part as not being up to the peaks of the first, THE SPIDERS, as a whole, is a must-have for action fans, silent movie aficionados, Fritz Lang buffs or, anyone who relishes a roller-coaster buzz from the comfort of their sofa. Indeed, I wasn’t put off by Part Two at all. Truth be told, I was planning on watching the pictures on two consecutive nights, but was so intrigued that I binged on the title in one three-hour sitting (trust me, the time flew by, causing me to question the specs a la “That couldn’t have been 173 minutes”); methinks you will, too.
With a few slight imperfections, the Kino Blu-Ray of THE SPIDERS is wunderbar. Sharp imagery with original tints and tones, excellent English intertitles plus a new (2012), effective stereo score by Ben Model. The pic was photographed by Emil Schunemann and the great Karl Freund (with whom Lang became lifelong friends) and produced by the legendary Erich Pommer.
Much has been said about how Hoog seems to be a role model for (gagging a bit) Indiana Jones. That seems to be the natural going-for-the-money tie-in, but, actually, if one is determined to offer up comparisons, THE SPIDERS is more or less a precursor to the James Bond franchise. Hoog’s “Bond, James Bond” gambling intro, his way with the ladies (“changing” the Pussy Galore loyalty of Lio Sha, albeit if only briefly), the necessary cruelty, the Spider/SMERSH-esque HQ, etc. I’ll go one further, and bet anything that Ian Fleming saw and was as inspired by THE SPIDERS, as Lang was by Fantomas. Ditto, the director’s subsequent Mabuse flicks (a Bond villain, if ever there was one).
LSS, if you’re searching for that platter to kick off 2017, try spinning DIE SPINNEN.
DIE SPINNEN, PARTS 1 & 2. Black and white with color tints. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; silent with stereo score [2.0 DTS-HD MA]; Kino Classics/ Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, Wiesbaden/Narodn filmovy archiv, Prague and the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique. CAT # K0890. SRP: $29.95.