© 2012 William Ahearn
The earliest surviving work of Lang’s is “The Spiders: The Golden Lake” and considered lost until a complete print was discovered in the 1970s and a restored version released in 1978. Even at 90+ years old, this series is a lot of fun and it requires ignoring a great deal of the Fritz Lang myth to appreciate it for what it is: A rich adventurer, an international criminal organization, lost Inca gold, an undiscovered tribe, shoot-outs, chases, trap doors, underground cities, escapes by a hot-air balloon and a flimsy raft, ninjas, caverns filling up with rushing water or poisonous gas, these are the elements of Fritz Lang's third film and his earliest surviving film. Produced by Erich Pommer for Decla-film, it was written by Lang and released in 1919.
“The Spiders: The Golden Lake” was the first of a planned four films to chronicle the adventures of Kay Hoog (Karl De Vogt) — a wealthy adventurer who finds a map in a bottle bobbing in the ocean from an explorer being held captive by a tribe in South America that has hoards of Inca gold — and his arch enemies, The Spiders — and his nemesis Lio Sha (Ressel Orla) — are plotting to steal the gold to use in their plans for world domination. The film features Lil Dagover as a tribal princess. Lang spent a great deal of time with preparation consulting with the Ethnographical Museum as to costumes and architecture of the Incas.
The film opens in South America where the explorer — on the run from the unknown tribe — puts a message in a bottle and tosses it into the sea as he’s struck down by an arrow. (See video.) It’s a matter of fate — as it were — that Lang’s first image is one of violence since his first two films remain lost.
The reviews were excellent. Der Film (Düsseldorf) wrote: “Fritz Lang offers a rich variety of fairy-tale miracles and splendors skillfully woven and structured into an exciting and dramatic plot which retains our interest all the time.” Another review in a different edition of the same publication complained that Lang’s film is too derivative of Hollywood films. That may not be too far from the truth as Decla-Film, in a press release, noted “The Decla Company intends with this series to become a rival to the American film industry.” Hollywood and Decla had another competitor for German theatre screens in the French with Louis Feuillade’s “Fantomas” and “Les Vampires.”
To understand Fritz Lang — at least in terms of his films — it is critical and essential to grasp his life-long obsession with “exotica” — as it was known in those days — and pulp adventure stories. Lang would talk of travels to numerous distant lands in his café days in Berlin and whether or not those tales are true has been the subject of debate. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that Fritz Lang wanted to make these types of films more than any other and this as well as “The Spiders: The Diamond Ship” that Lang also wrote and directed and that was released in 1920 were — as will become clear — his first love.
In The Haunted Screen, author Lotte Eisner notes that “It is easy these days to notice nothing but the old-fashioned, even ridiculous aspects of some of the situations or the stiff, mannered acting of the corpulent Ressel Orla.” (It needs to be pointed out that while Eisner is an authority on Fritz Lang and Weimar-era cinema, there is a snide aspect to the work and her disdain of Thea von Harbou will become obvious.) Eisner was writing about an audience circa 1975. Since that time, audience numbers as well as film sophistication have widened a great deal and now there is a far greater appreciation for silent films.
Produced by Erich Pommer Decla-Bioscop AG
Directed and written by Fritz Lang
Starring Carl de Vogt, Ressel Orla, Georg John, Lil Dagover
Cinematography Karl Freund, Emil Schünemann
Production Design by Otto Hunte, Carl Ludwig Kirmse, Heinrich Umlauff, Hermann Warm
The Spiders: The Golden Lake (1919) Die Spinnen, 1. Teil: Der Goldene See