09 July 2009

Die Nibelungen (1924)

d. Fritz Lang / Germany / 291 mins.
Alt: "Die Nibelungen: Siegfried" and "Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache"

The legacy of Die Nibelungen is a complicated one, ultimately apropos for its epic size, its mythic origins, and the accolades bestowed on it by fascists. It is one of the most ambitious silent films ever made — a two-part adaptation of a German myth running nearly five hours in length that was two years in the making by a veritable who's-who of Weimar film production. At its time it was the crown jewel from Ufa studios, which was intent on rivaling America as the cinematic powerhouse of the world. And it is for the most part a muscular film, particularly its astounding first half, even if its second half is often as arduous for the audience to endure as it is for the characters on the screen.

Director Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, his German-era screenwriting collaborator and wife, adapted the screenplay from a 13th-century Norse epic poem called "Nibelungenlied," the love story of a prince named Siegfried who wants to woo Kriemhild, the sister to a neighboring king, and her eventual vengeance of his murder. It is a tale of both fantasy and brutal reality. In the first part, as Siegfried is on his way to Worms to earn Kriemhild's heart, he slays a dragon and attains invulnerability after bathing in its blood (save one pesky spot), defeats evil dwarfs and attains riches, and finally helps the king win the love of the queen of Iceland so as he can win the love of Kriemhild. But the Icelandic queen's growing skepticism leads her to call for Siegfried's murder, and after discovering his weak spot, she orders the hit and draws the wrath of Kriemhild, who seeks to avenge his death.

To say this is not really to dispel too much of the film's plot, at least as far as it's understood that the story is abundantly familiar — Richard Wagner adapted the legend for a four-part opera between 1869 and 1874, which has since become one of opera's most famous stories. (It was prominently parodied by Chuck Jones in "What's Opera, Doc?") To watch Die Nibelungen correctly is to focus on the production itself, the thrill of the fights and the mysticism of the fantasy, to marvel at Lang's sublime craftsmanship when it is put on display. Perhaps more than any film Lang had made to this point (and soon to be surpassed by his next, Metropolis), Die Nibelungen is visually arresting. In all contemporary respects, the story takes a backseat to the nuts and bolts of cinema.

And yet ironically, it is the story that has made Die Nibelungen a component of world history. It carries some dubious historical baggage in the extent that it was beloved by German fascists; both Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, loved it for its projection of unabashed nationalism, for the courage and dominance of the German people, for the way the characters exhibit loyalty against reason. Die Nibelungen is dedicated "for the German people," and von Harbou — whose marriage with Lang ended when he fled Germany in the rise of Nazism and she, a national socialist, remained to work for the party — adjusted certain elements of the original myth in her screenplay to give the Nordic characters a superhuman quality, particularly in the second half, where a small band of men bravely fight the Huns although they are greatly outnumbered. Some, including Siegfried Kracauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler, consider Die Nibelungen to be "a key film in the nationalist uprising" primarily through its emphasis on the notion of Fate (a Langian leitmotif — twisted, it seems, beyond its auteur's original intent) and its narrowly tailored movement that sends all its abstract and mercurial elements — love, hatred, jealousy, betrayal, full-scale revenge, deadly loyalty — to a simmering culmination. As scholar Jan-Christopher Horak points out, it is no coincidence that Siegfried, the film's first half, was re-released in 1933 with a spoken prologue and a "Wagnerian soundtrack" only weeks after Ufa had fired all of its Jewish employees.

The history is so transfixing, I think, because what we know about Lang suggests this was not his intention, even if von Harbou's proto-fascism was. Given our understanding of Lang and von Harbou's world views, it's impossible not to regard the first half, Siegfried, as his and the second half, Kriemhilds Rache ("Kriemhild's Revenge"), as hers. Siegfried is far more mystical, with the inclusion of the dragon, the dwarfs, and multiple special effects; it more closely mirrors the dominant expressionism of its time, and tracks closer to the otherworldliness brought to life in Lang's Der Müde Tod in 1921. It is also the more austere of the two halves, more devoted to the careful set up of its tragedy. Kriemhilds Rache — in which Kriemhild moves to the far east, marries Atilla the Hun and plots her cold and implacable revenge against those who have done her wrong — is looser, messier, and with its principal interior sets, less interested in crafting a unique kingdom. From start to finish, Kriemhilds Rache is a hard slog, weighed down by the way it coils over and over on itself as it awaits the barbaric explosion at the end, which hardly proves satisfying after a two-and-a-half-hour wait.

It is the contention of some critics (including this one) that Lang's visual style, at least in Siegfried, largely undermines whatever fiery nationalism can be teased from van Harbou's script. More effective than any nationalist sensation is the overwhelming sense of fatalism that pervades Lang's oeuvre, this time brought to life on a gigantic and ancient scale. Lang's films always exhibit his geometric peculiarities, with symmetrical framing and painterly attention to the austere composition. For Siegfried, the camera works as a force of predestination: elements are so balanced that collapse seems inevitable. Scene to scene, there is an unmistakably palpable physicality, even if what could be touched never existed. Ufa, the studio, and Erich Pommer, the producer, gave Lang a gargantuan budget for 1924, and it shows. The dragon Siegfried slays, while somewhat silly in contemporary contexts, was nonetheless a feat of peerless puppetry, sixty feet long and controlled by no less than seventeen people. For all the theorizing that von Harbou and her nationalist cohorts saw Die Niebelungen as a torrential force in German uprising, Lang seems to capture an alternative sensation: suspension as an act of comfort, the awareness of anticipated implosion merely waiting out in the distance. If some historians believe Hitler, Goebbels, and others saw Die Nibelungen to presage the rise of the Übermensch, there's an equally compelling argument to be made that Lang presaged the downfall before it had even risen.

A final assessment is difficult because Siegfried and Kriemhilds Rache are two significantly unequal halves. Although they belong together, they were released two months apart and stand well separately, as long as the viewer enters with a working knowledge of the myth. Luckily, Siegfried is the first and better of the two (one of Lang's best silent films, actually), and not entirely dependent on Kriemhilds Rache to prove itself as a remarkable cinematic experience. But the total effect of Die Nibelungen is brought down by the unsatisfying qualities of Kriemhilds Rache, qualities that feel intentionally drawn to differentiate the two in style and theme but ultimately are inferior to Siegfried so that the contrast is perhaps too starkly drawn. As unfair as it is (or at least as much of a cheat as it is) to split the film in half when technically it is one large whole, it would be equally unfair to knock down the final grade of the film and do a disservice to its first part at the sake of its second. The film overall is recommended for its place in expressionism and the history of cinema, as well as being a crucial part of Lang's filmography. Siegfried is a must-see; but I excuse you from the Kriemhilds Rache if you're not interested.

Siegfried — ★★★★½
Kriemhilds Rache — ★★★


Sam Juliano,  09 July, 2009  

No, T.S., one must see KRIEMHILD'S REVENGE, but only to see this vision play out. That said, yes I quite agree that despite the two-month release of the two films, that SIEGFRIED is easily the stronger, and it's in fact one of Lang's greatest films ever, fully worthy of inclusion in that elite "M" group you mentioned in your MABUSE review. Funny, I commented after your SPIDERS piece that it didn't approach DIE NIEBELUNGEN, and here we are with a review! You are really examining some silent masterworks here, and with remarkable scholarship.

I must admit that I am a huge fan of Richard Wagner's music, and have witnessed the Ring Cycle on three separate occasions at the Metropolitan Opera house in Manhattan, and likewise consider that Chuck Jones cartoon you mention there as my favorite cartoon of all-time. Boy, what expressionistic strokes on display there!

And Krakauer's book is perhaps the most seminal of all volumes about the silent era, and I am a proud owner of it. I agree with you broaching it here in this great essay.

Lang's wife was a Nazi-loving national socialist who stayed back to support the party! Ha! Lovely lady!

T.S. 09 July, 2009  

You're right, Sam, Kriemhilds Rache truly must be seen as a historical completion to Die Nibelungen — but good God, the film critic in me is not excited to recommend it for any other reason. Halfway through I was thinking to myself, How can this possibly be the second half to what I just saw? It's somewhat telling that Siegfried was the film re-released in the years by the Nazis as Ufa was becoming controlled by the state, even though Kriemhilds Rache is clearly the more brutal of the two; even the Nazis apparently knew which half was better filmmaking. Ha.

I do agree that Siegfried is such an important film for the silent era, and one of Lang's best that I've seen. The atmosphere alone is worth the admission price. I only wish the second half showed the same level of cinematic wonder.

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