Die Spinnen

(1)

Die Spinnen (The Spiders)

Part One. Der Goldene See (The Golden Lake 1919 Germany 112 mins)

Source: Deutsches Institue für Filmkunde Filmarchiv, Wiesbaden. Prod Co: Decla-Bioscope Prod: Erich Pommer Dir, Scr: Fritz Lang Phot: Emil Schünemann Art Dir: Otto Hünte, Carl Ludwig Kirmse, Hermann Warm, Heinrich Umlauf

Cast: Carl de Vogt, Ressel Orla, Lil Dagover, Paul Morgan, Georg John.

Part Two. Das Brillanten Schiff (The Diamond Ship 1920 Germany 98 mins)

Source: Deutsches Institue für Filmkunde Filmarchiv, Wiesbaden. Prod Co: Decla-Bioscope Prod: Erich Pommer Dir, Scr: Fritz Lang Phot: Karl Freund Art Dir: Otto Hünte, Carl Ludwig Kirmse, Hermann Warm, Heinrich Umlauf

Cast: Carl de Vogt, Ressel Orla, Lil Dagover, Paul Morgan, Georg John.

Fritz Lang began his film career writing scripts. Between 1917 and 1919 he wrote about ten filmed scripts, half of which were produced by Decla, the company founded by Erich Pommer, with a further two being realised by director/producer Joe May. In 1919 Lang directed his first four films. Die Spinnen (Part 1: The Golden Lake) was Lang’s third and earliest extant film as a director. Die Spinnen (Part 2: The Diamond Ship) was made in 1920 with the modest Harakiri (Madame Butterfly, 1920) interceding. At this time Lang was also to have directed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), and had begun preliminary preparations (these included the suggestion, objected to by the scriptwriters Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz but adopted by Robert Wiene, the film’s eventual director, that a framing epilogue and prologue be added). (2) However, the commercial success of The Golden Lake meant that The Diamond Ship had to be rushed into production forcing Lang to withdraw from the project.

Die Spinnen was to have been a four part series following the exploits of a criminal gang. The Spiders (Die Spinnen) and their struggle against a millionaire adventurer, Kay Hoog, a character not dissimilar to Indiana Jones, who was born from Steven Spielberg’s love of old B-grade serials. The Diamond Ship was very successful with audiences, but it was internal problems such as Lang’s unhappiness with the rushed nature of production and Pommer’s growing disinterest in the series, that halted production on the final two sequels: Das Geheimnis der Sphinx (The Secrets of the Sphinx) and Ums Asiens Kaiserkrone (For Asia’s Imperial Crown).

Die Spinnen, Lang’s last solo scripted film, was an homage to the adventure stories of his youth, the disposable popular writings of Karl May (of whom Lang was a fervent admirer), Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Rider Haggard and Wilkie Collins. This is a ‘sensation’ film (the modern equivalent would be some of Hollywood’s action films), a film without high literary pretensions, a breathless roller-coaster ride that often exhausted audiences unused to such exuberance. The film’s cinematic precursors include Louis Feuillade’s series Fantomâs (1913-14), Les Vampires (1915-16) and Judex (1916-17), the Pearl White serials (1914-19) including The Perils of Pauline (1914) and the German detective genre of which Joe May’s and Ernst Reicher’s Stuart Webb series was the most successful. (It is possible, although not confirmed, that Lang contributed a script to this series, filmed as The Whip [1917]). (3) These detective and ‘sensation’ films routinely included such archetypal personalities, situations and plot elements as secret societies, spies, criminal masterminds, exotic locations (often African or Oriental), subterranean worlds, secret rooms with trap doors and hidden panels, hypnosis, encoded messages, disguises and deceptive appearances. They also displayed a fascination with modern technology. These components are all present in Die Spinnen, as they are to varying degrees in all of Lang’s subsequent films, most notably the German films he made before and after his sojourn in Hollywood.

Die Spinnen is also enlivened by taut, intelligent editing, ostensibly different to the common pre-war German technique of using the frame’s depth of field to create movement and tension, a technique brought back into prominence with the invention of Cinemascope. In contrast, Lang’s camera presents a composed image. Though the camera frequently moves, its movements are functional, recomposing or following the action in a fashion contrastive to the ornate mobile framing found in Max Ophüls’ films. Characteristically, German films of the period had a dense mise en scène that was rich in detail and texture. This acted as compensation for their leisurely editing and static framings. Yet Lang’s German films from Die Spinnen onwards, made on large budgets and frequently featuring production design by the legendary art directors Otto Hünte or Hermann Warm (Die Spinnen was their first collaboration with Lang), were similarly densely and intricately designed. In America, where Lang worked on more intimate projects with lower budgets, this elaborate design was replaced by more sparse and functional sets and compositions.

Die Spinnen was made to impress and seduce viewers through all of the resources that Lang had at his disposal. His ‘sensation’ film, like its penny dreadful literary predecessors, wastes no time on extensive character development. (In his later career, especially once he had resettled in Hollywood, Lang would regularly be accused of creating films lacking in character motivation and psychological depth.) Die Spinnen opens with an enigmatic scene of an old man fleeing an Inca warrior, before then rapidly introducing its socialite antagonists. The antagonists smash wine glasses and the battle begins. Unlike in conventional narrative filmmaking, Lang abruptly introduces scenes without the benefit of incremental exposition. The effect of this technique is disorientating, giving the impression that a fragment of the film may be missing. It is almost as if the storytelling cannot keep pace with the rapidly developing drama.

Die Spinnen‘s story is preposterous, jumping with great celerity from an Inca Island, to the San Franciscan aristocracy, then to a Mexican cantina and next to an air-filled balloon. The film’s tempo smooths over plot inconsistencies and the multiple contrived coincidences. Later reviewers would criticise Lang’s American films for their lack of verisimilitude and, yet, care was taken in the promotion of Die Spinnen to highlight the crucial role played by Heinrich Umlauff, ethnological museum curator, frequent collaborator (especially in art direction and costume design) and a friend of the director in creating the documentary authenticity of the film. (4) Lang also mentioned that his travels to Russia, Asia Minor and North Africa in 1911-12, aided in the realisation of his project. (5) Nevertheless, although the set design and costumes created a sense of an exotic world in which the action unfolded, the sense of realism produced was no greater than that found in other contemporary productions; especially, for example, when examining the film’s Mexican scenes in which the cowboys, grossly overdressed, appear as if they had wondered in from a Broncho Billy Anderson Western. The simple explanation for this emphasis is that the filmmakers were attempting to give their film credibility. Ironically, especially considering the great esteem in which Lang’s German films were held by many critics in comparison to his American films until the late 1950s, detective films and ‘sensation’ films were held in low regard by critics and middle-class audiences. These films, like the penny dreadfuls and comic books (which also influenced Lang – see references in Die Frau im Mond [1929], Spione [1928] and M [1931]) before them, created a moral panic in Germany during the 1910s. Pre-First World War German censorship completely banned French detective films including Feuillade’s Fantomâs, and D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909). Robert Gaupp, a psychologist and physician of the time stated, after listing what he considered all of the characteristics of film, that “[t]he cinema drama shares all of these things with the trashy detective novel. But the cinematograph has a more damaging and nerve-racking effect due to the temporal concentration of events.” (6)

Although the war stopped the flow of foreign films, reducing German anxiety about the infiltration of foreign values, a sense of unease still existed amongst the educated classes (a necessary audience to make such films profitable). Whereas low-brow cinema generally played in cheap-priced suburban cinemas, quality ‘product’ played in the more comfortable centrally located picture palaces. The veneer of authenticity lent by an expert ethnologist, and the prestige of a large budget gave Die Spinnen credibility although Lang was recycling the elements from many a pot-boiler. Also, Lang’s themes of paranoia (Lang’s characters are always shown watching each other) and deception, of criminal networks who threaten anarchy and instability (reaching their apotheosis in the Dr. Mabuse films), appealed to a angst-ridden German public caught in post-war political unrest, rising inflation and the perceived collapse of moral standards. Lang’s ruse worked and he convinced the middle-classes that Die Spinnen, replete with its pseudo-American, contemporary trash fiction values, was acceptable to their sensibilities. Die Spinnen was a huge success, and the rest is history. Lang was able to rework his favourite themes, in one form or another, either more or less sublimated for the rest of his career.

Endnotes

  1. Lang’s lecture presented in Vienna in 1924 and reprinted in: E. Beyfuss and A. Kossowsky (eds), Das Kulturfilmbuch (Berlin: Carl P. Chryselius, 1924).
  2. Patrick McGilligan, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997) 59.
  3. Patrick McGilligan, 39.
  4. Lotte Eisner, Fritz Lang (London: Secker & Warburg, 1976) 32-3.
  5. Patrick McGilligan, 58.
  6. Jörg Schweinitz (ed.), Prolog vor dem Film: Nachdenken über ein neues Madium, 1909-1914 (Leipzig: Reclam, 1992 ) 66, as quoted by Sebatian Hesse, Ernst Reicher alias Stuart Webbs in Thomas Elsaesser (ed), The Second Life, German Cinema’s First Decades (Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 1996) 144.

About The Author

Michael Koller is the executive programmer for The Melbourne Cinémathèque.