Largely underrated during his own lifetime, Fritz Lang was, in terms of subject matter, one of the most well-rounded directors. Reduced to hired-gun status during his American period (never mind the riches that would be recognized by auteurist rescue missions), his 41-year career is bookended by a pair of proto-Indiana Jones adventure films, sending their rugged, manly heroes into uncharted territories. The Indian Epic, filmed in gorgeous Technicolor, proved to be his penultimate masterwork, while The Spiders, heavily influenced by Feuillade, was one of his first films.
In the larger hierarchy of his career, The Spiders isn't as strong a film as some of the titanic silents that were still to come, such as Metropolis and Die Nibelungen, but it's a great deal more than "an item of historical interest," whether that pertains to an appreciation of silents in general or reading the images in Langian terms. The latter has its own pleasures, of course, as its 173 minutes are well stocked with funereal chambers for interiors, and lush jungle scenery (dense enough to conceal hidden enemies, poisons, and giant snakes) for exteriors. Although the serial adventure format would undergo periodic transformation across two World Wars, Lang applied his own particular stamp to the genre, with polyvalent connections spread through is career, even into his westerns, war films, and noirs.
The story, told loosely through dozens of rich tableaux, occasionally resorting to suspenseful crosscutting, concerns gentleman adventurer (international man of mystery, you might say) Kay Hoog, played by German silent star Carl de Vogt, and his quest to acquire priceless treasure, including the famed "Buddha's Head" diamond. Battling natives across the globe (the poster image shows Hoog strangling a murderous Injun), our hero also must contend with a secret society known as "The Spiders"—hence the title of the epic.
With The Spiders, Lang's mastery of the form is not as evident as it would be shortly after. As early as 1922's great Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, Lang was able to indulge his taste for lush but static mise-en-scène (in case anyone feels that the rushes we see in Godard's Contempt are somehow a failure of representation) while, miraculously, imbuing them with an unstoppable forward momentum. He's not quite there yet with The Spiders, but you can see him working toward it, and the film isn't without substantial entertainment value. And at the end of the day, "not quite a masterpiece," in the context of Lang's many achievements, is no small praise.
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Lang's two-part epic is over 90 years old and looks it, but Kino's handling of the aged materials is characteristically delicate and respectful, given their reputation. For a DVD, the shaky, lightly damaged print looks very good, and its tinted sequences are intact. You could pointlessly wish for the diptych to look as luminous as the same company's Die Nibelungen, but we're fortunate to have anything at all. Ben Model's serviceable score is on the mono track.
Destined for film school libraries, Fritz Lang's earliest, substantially preserved adventure epic gets a solid, workmanlike DVD presentation from Kino.