The Spiders Episode 2: The Diamond Ship
The second and final installment of Fritz Lang’s serial “The Spiders,” like the first one, owes a great deal to earlier silent cinema, but shows the innate talents of the still new director as he works in a somewhat formulaic genre.
The movie opens with a shot that could have been lifted directly from Maurice Tourneur’s “Alias Jimmy Valentine” – an overhead image of a jewel heist that shows a labyrinthine shop floor layout as various people move about and evade one another (it was a bank in the original). The Spiders break into the vault and take the jewels back to their base, but they are discouraged to find that the “Buddha Stone” is not among them. The Buddha Stone is a much sought-after prize that supposedly would “make Asia mighty” and liberate its people from foreign rule if returned to them, so the Spiders want to sell it to the Indian-led “Asia Committee.” Apparently, they have looked everywhere for this precious and powerful jewel, but cannot find it.
While they are going through their loot and laying plans, Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) decides to fly a plane over the base and drop onto the roof (presumably the plane, now pilot-less, crashes a few blocks away, but we don’t see this). He leads a raid of the police on their base, but most of the spiders get away by tricking him and a few of his companions into a small locked room that takes some time to get out of. One of the captives informs him of an “underground city” beneath the streets of Chinatown, so he goes to investigate, gaining entry with a Chinese symbol taken from one of the spiders. We don’t see much of the city, but it includes caged tigers, opium dens, and weighted staircases that drop you into pits that fill with water. Hoog escapes that death by bending back some bars and swimming out to the Bay.
Now the Spiders launch their “Diamond Ship” (also known as the “Storm Bird”), but Hoog is able to stow away on board. He dresses up in one of their “Fantômas”-style costumes and knocks out the radio operator, learning that a hypnotist has forced a Yogi to reveal the current owner of the Buddha Stone as one John Terry, “The Diamond King” of England (Rudolph Lettinger). The Spiders duly set sail for England, and Hoog escapes after a tense chase through the rigging with Spider-thugs after him and a daring dive into the water. The Spiders trick Terry into leaving his home and sneak in to break into the vault, but they are interrupted by his daughter Ellen (Thea Zander), so they kidnap her and try to ransom her for the stone. Unfortunately, neither Terry has any idea what they’re talking about, so he takes out a “reward” notice in the paper.
Hoog is sitting having a drink in a pub when a paper boy comes in and he notices the reward. He contacts John Terry and together they go over the log book of Terry’s ancestor, a notorious pirate who found a stone with an image of the Buddha on it. (We see Terry’s family history through a “Fantômas”-style montage with the same actor in the costumes of different periods) They figure out that he had secreted his loot inside a cave on the Falkland Islands. The Spiders are able to get the same information because “Four-Finger John” (Edgar Pauly) has infiltrated Terry’s household as a servant, and sends a carrier pigeon out to the “Storm Bird.” The race is on!
Hoog manages to find the cave first, and enters, lit by a torch that tints the picture red. But just when he discovers the diamond, the Spiders come in and capture him. He’s able to hide it, so they tie him up and go to sleep, waiting for him to volunteer the information. At night, poisonous gases well up from the depths of the cave, and everyone panics. Hoog is able to untie himself and crawl out of the cave before suffocating, but all of the Spiders die horribly. He heads back to England with the stone and meets up with Terry, who has hired Pinkerton detectives to trace his daughter, learning that a “master hypnotist” (Georg John), the leader of the Spiders, is holding her in a hotel. Watching him from another building, they observe as one of his agents reports the death of Lio Sha (Ressel Orla) and the failure of the mission. He decides to try to trick the Asia Committee with a fake stone, but their agents are also watching, and come in to kill him. Assuming that Ellen is Lio, the turbaned assassin prepares to kill her too, but Hoog rushes in in time to save her. She is treated by a doctor and loses her memory of the upsetting events.
There’s no getting around the heavy-handed ethnic stereotypes of both parts of this series. In Part 1, we got Incans who sacrifice people and whose gold is ripe for plunder. In this one, we get Jewish, Chinese, Indian, and other Asian caricatures – the “Asian Committee” even seems to include a Jewish jeweler, which connects a little too neatly to later Nazi racial theories. There are several African-originated actors in servile roles as well; the one who gets the most on-screen time is a cook who rolls his eyes in terror at Hoog’s black costume. The evil plan of the Spiders is to liberate Asia from Western dominance – although we learn that the Master truly intends to subject them to his own. The Chinese underworld is given a literal existence and America’s multicultural society seems to be a place of decadence, murder, and drug use. It’s also amusing in a German movie to be emphasizing that English wealth is built on a legacy of piracy and plunder.
All of this, and the broader appeal of a crime movie at the time, seems to relate to the instability and identity crisis that Germany was undergoing at the time. 1919 and 1920 was a time of near-revolution and political upset. The monarchy had collapsed with barely a whimper at the end of the First World War, and was replaced by a Socialist-led republic that was decried from both the far left and the right. Riots and strikes were put down with ruthless force by veterans operating in extra-legal Freikorps bands and a few months after this movie was released, a group of anti-republican rightists would attempt a Putsch in Berlin. In short, this was a time of enormous uncertainty about the future, and many Germans were longing for a simpler moral balance. Lang’s “Spiders” represent all of those doubts, vanquished in the name of Western civilization (and colonialism) by Kay Hoog.
For Lang, this serial was both an opportunity and a loss, because it meant relinquishing the direction of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” That movie is now a highly-praised Expressionist classic, and this one is mostly a historical footnote. I did notice that Lang managed to get a few expressionistic shots into this, particularly in the Chinese under-city, where the Chinese characters written on walls sometimes evoke the oddly-angled sets of “Caligari.” It was originally planned that “The Spiders” would include four episodes, but somehow only two were made. It’s my impression that Lang had learned about the termination of the project toward the end of filming this, and rapidly wrote in the deaths of all of the villains. It feels a bit rushed, and there is no true resolution for the hero; although he does save Ellen Terry, there is no connection between them and presumably he’s still mourning his Incan wife. Lang would work with many of the same themes (good and bad) of this film in later, more successful pictures.
Director: Fritz Lang
Camera: Karl Freund
Run Time: 1 hr, 44 min
You can watch both parts of the movie for free: here.