Classic Film Review: A Master Shows his Hand in an early silent serial, Fritz Lang’s “The Spiders” (1919)

Silent cinema isn’t for everyone, because not everyone is curious about the building blocks of modern cinema, how filmmakers from the era before “Babylon,” before the talkies, invented the language and techniques of storytelling with a camera.

But if you’re curious how an oft-filmed tale looked in its original, silent incarnation, if you want to know about erased female film pioneers, if you’ve immersed yourself in the canon of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock or Chaplin, you might find yourself drawn to their earliest work, before microphones were added to film sets.

The Austrian Fritz Lang made the landmark early sci-fi thriller “Metropolis” and the murderer-hunted-down classic “M” before migrating to Hollywood and making his mark there with many films, “The Big Heat,” “Rancho Notorious” and “The Blue Gardenia” among them.

His influence on the genre defined as “film noir” by French critics could have just as well been labeled “Dunkel Film,” since a German-speaking Austrian filmmaker had such a big role in defining it.

Lang’s themes of crime and punishment, conspiracy and guilt became something like his calling cards over his long career. But when did that get its start? His “Doctor Mabuse” movies? “M?” His early silents?

The one-eyed World War I veteran was just three films into his directing career — he got into movies via scenario writing — when he brought “The Spiders” movies to audiences in 1919 and 1920. They were adventure serials, two one hour films, with two more planned and never made. A treasure-hunting tale built around an American adventurer, Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt), they pitted him against a nefarious, secretive Chinese-founded crime organization named for its calling card — spiders.

Lang’s lifelong obsession with evil conspiracies and criminal masterminds, the persistent threat of organized criminal malevolence, is all over this lively, action-packed thriller.

Silent cinema in America was wholly primitive pre-“Birth of a Nation,” and still almost unwatchable pre-1920. A few Chaplin comedies are the exception, but by and large, the acting was overdone, presentational mime, the worst habits of the Victorian stage preserved on film well into the Edwardian era.

But the acting is startlingly natural in “The Spiders,” the fights and shootouts chaotic and perilous and the variety of settings, “researched” and envisioned by a German university’s ethnography department, an opening credit tells us, quite striking for a film from just-defeated post-war Germany.

Fay Hoog finds a literal message in a bottle, a location of an Inca treasure scrawled by a doomed adventurer we see toss the bottle into the sea just as he’s murdered in Peru. Fay puts on his tux and tells the others swells at his San Francisco club that he’s dropping whatever he’s doing to go and find it.

Oddly, he will do this alone. No “expedition” for him.

But “The Spiders,” a well-heeled organization of the entitled rich and their Chinese underworld partners, are determined to steal the directions to this treasure and get there before Fay. Their best agent, Lio Sha (Ressel Orla) organizes an expedition with Dr. Telphas (Georg John). Because unlike the pistol-packing Fay, she has an idea of how hard this will be.

Their cat and mouse chase begins on the long train ride south, continues as Fay makes escapes by horse and even hot air balloon, which Fay parachutes out of, with many assorted complications on their way to their meeting with destiny and the Last of the Incas.

Over the course of the two films — titled “The Golden Sea” and “The Diamond Ship” — the quest will change, from Inca gold to a Buddha-shaped diamond. But the rivals will remain the same. Bodies will turn up with spider dolls on their chest. And Fay will take sailing barquentines, motorcars and biplanes in his efforts to save this or that damsel, find treasure and take down The Spiders, or as they and these films about them were called in German, “Die Spinnen.”

Silent films were much easier to export than talking movies, so a film like this would have played far and wide, anywhere a projector could be had and the audience could be relied on to ignore recent history and its enemy combatant (German) origins.

That played a hand in this “lost” film’s recovery. If you become as famous as Fritz Lang, film historians are going to look for that earliest work. And if its only available in pieces from prints or negatives scattered all over the world, they’ll make the effort.

That explains the different shades of monochrome in this 1970s restoration. Lang was still living when that process started, and reminded the restorers that sequences were tinted into something resembling color here and there, and helped with the continuity, which is still choppy and not the easiest “simple” story to follow.

The acting impresses, as do the stunts, no matter how they faked them. An early scene, showing assorted spiders passing the word, via phone calls, features five talking figured matted (part of the film frame left unexposed) into the same shot, an impressive effect for the day.

Looking back on it from 100 years later, simple things like how train travel looked in the day, and a couple of still-used-for-commerce tall sailing ships are employed as sets might be the most impressive images. Whatever Hollywood and modern cinema do to recreate such vessels, the real thing is a striking image — towering masts of wood and vast arrays of rope rigging, sails and crew who knew how to work them.

Seen today, “The Spiders” can seem a pretty primitive affair. Racial attitudes and racial depictions flirt with being cringeworthy, and the narrative — with those German university ethnographers not pointing out that “Incas” as an organizing culture were 350 years dead by the time this movie was made — leaves something to be desired.

Lang’s ongoing obsession with crime is hinted at, but the guilt and punishment that became signature subjects and subtexts of his films would come later, after the suspicious death of his first wife in 1921. When you’re cheating on her and she dies with your military service pistol, either by suicide or perhaps even murdered by the filmmaker who would become famous, lifelong “guilt” is a given.

It’s still fascinating to any film buff to see the sort of ambitious work Lang was attempting in his 20s, just as his career was beginning, just as the image language of the cinema was being codified for all time.

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Carl de Vogt, Ressel Orla, Lil Dagover, Georg John and Bruno Lettinger

Credits: Scripted and directed by Fritz Lang, a Declar-Bioscop AG film on Kino Lorber, Tubi, Amazon etc.

Running time: two films, shown together, 2:10


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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