The Spiders (1919)

Fritz Lang Shows His Hand With ‘The Spiders’ and ‘Destiny’

From playing with Death to finding a lost Incan civilisation, these two silents are bursting with adventure and intrigue.

As part of their ongoing Blu-ray upgrade of their silent film DVD collection, Kino has released two more German classics from Fritz Lang. One is identical to its previous DVD, and the other adds something substantial.

The unchanged item is The Spiders, a two-part adventure from 1919 written and directed by Lang in direct emulation of Louis Feuillade’s French serials, from a plot full of senseless running around and hair’s breadth escapes to the manipulations of a beautiful villainess — an anti-heroine admired for her strength and intelligence as much as her glamour. Feuillade cast Musidora in these roles, while Lang uses the exotically named Ressel Orla as the equally exotically named Lio Sha.

Sha runs or belongs to a criminal group called the Spiders, for one of the elements Lang adds to the French model is the use of shadowy organizations instead of lone individuals. Lang’s film has lots of literal and figurative undergrounds; here we have underground chambers in a lost Inca civilization and a secret city under Chinatown. Lang also adds in-camera visual trickery, the geometry of elaborately designed sets, and a general taste for what seemed exotic to his German audience: Incas, a Buddha-head diamond that will help Asia throw off foreign domination, an Indian Yogi, the use of hypnosis, and on and on. As pulp imagination, it doesn’t quit.

This tinted print with Ben Model’s score is identical to the 2012 DVD edition, which uses English for the intertitles and other inserts. This lack of the German titles, and especially the more or less continually visible damage to a generally good print, means I’ll be unsurprised if yet another restoration is in store for this title in the future. The disc has no extras.

Destiny (1921)

Destiny is a different matter. This 1921 classic, whose German title means “The Weary Death”, has been treated to a wonderful restoration that includes the German intertitles (with their various snazzy fonts to match the different segments), and we can see that certain intertitles rhyme. This print also recreates the original tinting and toning to resemble the 1921 German release as closely as possible. An extra explains this process with demonstrations.

Lang co-wrote this film with his future wife (and future ex-wife) Thea Von Harbou. Their delicate and influential fable tells of a heroine (Lil Dagover — an Inca princess in The Spiders) who loses her lover (Walter Janssen) to a mysterious stranger with a broad-brimmed hat and a skeleton on top of his staff. He’s Death (Bernhard Goetzke), who’s so tired of his job that he offers to give back the woman’s lover if she’s able to foil Death in any of three far-flung stories where they all appear cast in different roles: an Arabian tale, at the Venice Carnival, and among Chinese magicians.

It’s a moody, often dazzling movie with style, humor and melancholy. In a commentary, Tim Lucas gives background and makes connections to other films, notably Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and its 1998 remake, Meet Joe Black, and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). Lucas also makes the fascinating point that, although we don’t think of Lang immediately as one of the great feminist directors, he always has strong women and they often drive the plot. Here, that’s true in the overall film and the tales within the tale.

Adding to his insights, we’ll note that Conrad Veidt played Death as a storyteller and various roles within the stories in Richard Oswald’s 1919 portmanteau film Unheimliche Geschichten, a film that apparently influenced Lang. Another great 1921 fantasy about death is the Swedish The Phantom Carriage, which also influenced Bergman, but Death isn’t embodied as a character; rather, whoever dies last in the year must drive Death’s carriage for the next year. To echo one of Lucas’ points, this all sounds like a WWI hangover.


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