Note: This is the hundred-and-twenty-seventh and hundred-and-twenty-eighth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second and third favorite 1924 films, DIE NIBELUNGEN: SIEGFRIED and DIE NIBELUNGEN: KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE, directed by Fritz Lang.
Dragons, dwarves, invisibility, transformations, kings and queens, massive castles, deep forests, foreboding swamps and caves; Fritz Lang rendered this and more with fantastic brilliance in his pair of DIE NIBELUNGEN films, based on the (circa) 1200 AD Germanic poem NIBELUNGENLIED. And although SIEGFRIED and KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE are variably considered as two parts of a whole film as well as two separate works, I’ve gone with the latter. Nevertheless, I also think (quite clearly) the two are inextricably linked; KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE isn’t quite a “sequel.” It came out just two months after SIEGFRIED. What I’m trying to say is I’m addressing the two films in one essay here, what is/are essentially my hundred-and-twenty-seventh and hundred-and-twenty-eighth in this series.
OK, that out of the way: yes, DIE NIBELUNGEN is incredible. No, really, I can’t believe Lang pulled this off in 1924. Yes, the technical is impressive. But there’s more to the film(s) than that. The artistry of the sets and costumes and special effects pull the magic together, but the very structure and scope of the legend told does the form justice. Too often is some form of the term “cinema as poetry” used, but DIE NIBELUNGEN may have to be one of the true exceptions. It is literally accomplishing the feat of true epic poetry.
What I mean is that DIE NIBELUNGEN does feel like an artifact out of history, a looming work older than its relatively short 95 years at the time of this writing. My ol’ stand-by catch-all term, “otherworldly,” nevertheless encapsulates DIE NIBELUNGEN’s incredible ability to draw investment. Its length (all told, nearly 5 hours long) allowed Lang to let no stone go unturned, giving so much time to each of the archetypal characters. The mythology becomes less distant or theoretical because of it.
Each parts of DIE NIBELUNGEN also feel distinct, and not just because the second, KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE, is devoid of the namesake of the first part, SIEGFRIED, upon his death at the end of the film. SIEGFRIED is a phenomenal action/adventure legend. The hero, played by Paul Richter, kills a dragon, finesses an invisiblity/transformation cloak, aids an allied king in “winning” the strong queen of Iceland; all to himself win the hand of Kriemhild (Margarete Schön), the sister of Burgundy’s King Gunther. Through his strong-headed manipulation, Siegfried becomes the target of Gunther’s advisor and bodyguard Hagen. When Siegfried bathed in the blood of the dragon he vanquished, he became invincible…except for one part on his back where a linden leaf covered him. It is there where Hagen runs him through with a spear, as Siegfried was bent over to drink from a beautiful pool in a placid forest. Kriemhild, his recently married love, swears revenge on Hagen, her own brother’s close advisor.
Guess what happens in KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE. But OK, no really, the second part of DIE NIBELUNGEN is indeed quite different. There aren’t so many magical goings-on. The film becomes a sort of political drama, as Kriemhild’s own family protects Hagen and she accepts the otherwise unwanted hand of King Etzel (Attila) of the Huns. After bearing his son, Kriemhild manipulates Etzel’s warriors to attack the Burgundians, Hagen, and her own family. The battle ends in Hagen’s and Kriemhild’s deaths, in addition to the deaths of numerous soldiers in an incredible extended battle sequence (almost the entirety of the last 45 minutes). From SIEGFRIED through her own titular revenge, Kriemhild represents the most interesting arc of the whole film, traveling from innocent maiden to stone-cold anti-heroine.
By the end of KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE and DIE NIBELUNGEN, the initial impression of a straightforward myth is transformed into a complex legend. Siegfried becomes less of the uncomplicated hero; he has the capriciousness and moral ambiguity of even the Greek tragedians. Kriemhild, as mentioned, becomes a ruthless manipulator who we nevertheless root for. But by the time we see her assault on the Burgundians, her own family, the motivations of Hagen become more justified; he believed that Siegfried had essentially raped Brunhild (Hanna Ralph) through the complex deception of Siegfried and Gunther to win the hand of Brunhild for Gunther. This is when, in fact, Siegfried used his transformation ability to pose as Gunther up until the moment where the real Gunther and Brunhild consummated their marriage.
These portrayals are Lang’s, coaxed from the incredible cast of his film and the structure of the original poem. He saw in NIBELUNGENLIED another story, a morally ambiguous one revolving around two men’s deception of women. These deceptions and circuitous sequences of dramatic elevation make DIE NIBELUNGEN more than just a pretty face, which indeed it was. Its fantastical elements are so perfectly realized. Lang’s films were not truly Expressionistic, and perhaps the effects of DIE NIBELUNGEN could be termed as realistic for their time. But because they were really not, because the dragon and the costumes and architecture and deep forests are so stylized, more Impressionistically than Expressionistically, Lang’s fantasy still feels timeless, deepened by a compelling family drama.